From the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln argued that Union forces were not fighting to end slavery but to prevent the disintegration of the United States. For abolitionists, however, ending slavery was the reason for the war, and they argued that African Americans should be able to join the fight for their freedom. On January 1, 1863, amidst the tumult of the war, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, providing freedom for persons enslaved in the states in rebellion and the impetus for black men to serve in the military.
The presidential order came at a time when state governors were responsible for raising regiments for federal service. Early in 1863, Abolitionist Governor John Albion Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first call for black soldiers and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was formed. While their formation was a matter of controversy, Andrew was committed and believed that black men were capable of leadership. Others felt that commissioning blacks as officers was simply too controversial. Robert Gould Shaw, a young white officer from a prominent Boston family, volunteered for the Regiment’s command.
By the time the 54th Infantry headed off to training camp two weeks later, more than 1,000 men had volunteered. Many came from other states, such as New York, Indiana, and Ohio; some even came from Canada. One-quarter of the volunteers came from slave states and the Caribbean. Fathers and sons, some as young as 16, enlisted together. The most famous enlistees were Charles and Lewis Douglass, two sons of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Shaw and his commissioned officers were white and the enlisted men black; black officers up to the rank of lieutenant were non-commissioned and reached their positions by moving up through the ranks. They trained in Readville, now the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston.
On May 28, 1863, upon the presentation of the 54th’s colors by the governor and a parade through the streets of Boston, thousands lined the streets to see this experimental unit off, including anti-slavery advocates William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Douglass. The regiment then departed Boston on the transport De Molay for the coast of South Carolina. Colonel Shaw and his troops landed at Hilton Head on June 3 and were soon forced to execute a destructive raid in Georgia. The colonel wrote General George Strong and argued that his troops had come South to fight for freedom and justice, not to destroy undefended towns with no military significance. He asked if the 54th might lead the next Union charge on the battlefield.
While they fought to end slavery in the Confederacy, the 54th also were fighting another injustice. The U.S. Army paid black soldiers $10 a week; white soldiers got $3 more. In protest, the entire regiment — soldiers and officers alike — refused to accept their wages until black and white soldiers earned equal pay, which did not happen until the war was almost over.
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Service of the 54th
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts became famous for leading an assault on Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston. Shaw led 600 of his men over Wagner’s fortified walls. Unfortunately, Union generals had miscalculated and 1,700 Confederate soldiers were ready for battle. Outgunned and outnumbered, nearly 300 of the charging soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Shaw himself was shot on his way over the wall and died instantly. Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford was wounded three times in saving the American flag from Confederate capture. Carney’s bravery earned him the distinction of becoming the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The 54th lost the battle at Fort Wagner, but they did a great deal of damage there. Confederate troops abandoned the fort soon afterward. For the next two years, the regiment participated in a series of successful siege operations in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, before returning to Boston in September 1865.
On Memorial Day 1897, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens unveiled a memorial to the 54th Massachusetts at the same spot on the Boston Common where the regiment had begun its march to war 34 years before. The high-relief bronze memorial to Colonel Shaw and the 54th Regiment was erected across from the Massachusetts State House through a fund established by Joshua B. Smith, a self-emancipated man from North Carolina. Smith was a caterer, former employee of the Shaw household, and a state representative from Cambridge. Among other tributes, a photographic reproduction of the 54th’s saved national flag is on display in the State House’s Hall of Flags and the 1989 film “Glory,” which won three Academy Awards, brought the story of the Assault on Fort Wagner to viewers worldwide.