Today’s post comes from Austin McManus with the National Archives History Office.
To commemorate Black History Month, we celebrate the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first African American unit of the U.S. Army. These brave men served honorably during U.S. Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of the war, signaling that the war for union was also a war for freedom and the abolition of the institution of slavery.
The Proclamation most notably freed slaves in the rebellious states. However, an additional provision is often overlooked: it authorized the U.S. Army and Navy to receive African American men “of suitable condition” into their ranks.
Shortly thereafter, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized Massachusetts Governor John Andrews to call for volunteers for an all-black infantry regiment. He received help from a number of Massachusetts men and women, many of whom were abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, to recruit hundreds of African American men for the regiment.
Governor Andrews also hand-picked many of the white officers for the regiment, many of whom grew up in abolitionist families. One of these officers was Robert Gould Shaw, the son of wealthy abolitionist Francis Shaw, who encouraged his son to accept the Governor’s promotion to colonel of this new all-black regiment.
While initially resistant to the idea, Shaw ultimately accepted the commission to lead the newly formed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
The new regiment trained at Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts. Although they would be fighting alongside their white counterparts, they weren’t paid as much. In response, the entire regiment—soldiers and officers alike—boycotted by refusing their pay altogether. (Congress rectified this on September 28, 1864.)
They also faced an additional threat. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, issued a proclamation stating that any black men enlisted with the Union Army and their white officers captured in battle would face capital punishment, most likely death. Yet the regiment faced this daunting fate in service of a country that had not granted them equal rights as citizens.
The 54th Massachusetts departed for Beaufort, South Carolina, on May 28, 1863, marching through the streets of Boston to intrigued and supportive spectators. They first saw action on July 16 when they fought Confederate troops on James Island in the Battle of Grimball’s Landing.
However, they are most known for their participation in the assault on Fort Wagner just two days later.
The regiment played the important role of leading the assault on the fort. Their efforts were brave but temporarily unsuccessful as the rough terrain and overwhelming firepower of the Confederates wiped out approximately half of the regiment, including Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
During the battle, Sgt. William H. Carney’s actions later earned him the Medal of Honor. Witnessing the regiment’s flag bearer fall in the battle, Carney retrieved the colors and carried them to the end of the engagement.
Although other black soldiers received the Medal of Honor before Carney—who didn’t received the medal until 1900—his actions preceded all the others.
Indeed, there were many African American men and women who served our country in countless other ways before the 54th Massachusetts.
But the story of the 54th is one that remains an important story in American history. The men of the 54th risked their lives to fight for equality of all Americans, regardless of color, and defended the principles by which our nation was founded.
Visit the National Archives website to learn more about our Black History Month events and material documenting the African American experience.