The Real Story of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts

When the Civil war began, President Lincoln argued that the union forces present in the country were not fighting to ensure that slavery was put to an end, rather they were only fighting to prevent the disintegration of the United States. The reason for the war was to end the slavery since the blacks were already part of the federal forces fighting against disintegration. It was until 1st January in the year 1863, that the African American were allowed to participate in the Union Army as soldiers. Initially, the federal government was reluctant to incorporate the black soldiers in the army due to political reasons. However, the white soldiers seemed demoralized and they needed some support. The most lucrative option was to consider the black people into the military.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry was a military unit organized by John A. Andrew in 1863 and commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. It was the first regiment in the North to include soldiers of African descent.  It was the first time in the American history when the federal government considered hiring the freed slaves into the American military. It was mainly composed of many free blacks from the northern side, mainly the areas of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Among them were namely; Lewis and Charles, who are the sons of famous abolitionist named as Frederick Douglass (Cox, 2007). The 54th Infantry was unique; they faced controversial injustices and they marked many great achievements in the history books.

When the 54th Infantry regiment was now heading off to the training, there were more than 1,000 African-American men who volunteered to join the civil war. Initially, the freed slaves were reluctant to join the military. It was also noted that the regiment had been authorized in March 1863 by the Governor of Massachusetts. Like other officers of the Regiment of African-American troops both Robert Gould Shaw and Hallowell were promoted to higher grades where they were made captains in several times. During the Civil War, the inclusion of black soldiers into the Union army didn’t occur until the enactment of the Proclamation Emancipation, which declared the freedom of slaves and allowed black soldiers to join the battlefield against the Confederates.

What made the 54th Infantry particularly unique was the fact that, they were the first black regiment to be recruited in the North. Prior to 1863, no efforts were made to recruit black soldiers. In addition, most of the soldiers who joined did that voluntarily. Approximately more than 1000 volunteered (Cox, 2007). The officer in command of the regiment was Robert Gould Shaw, a young white officer and son of wealthy prominent Boston abolitionist parents. Another trait that made this unit unique was their dedication to the cause. Even after the information given by the Confederate Congress that every captured black soldier was required to be sold into slavery while on the other side; every white officer who had the power to give command to the black troops will soon be killed, they still gathered in the Boston Common to train and prepare and head off into the battlefields in the South (Cox, 2007). With the 54th Infantry’s unique dedication and position within the battlefield, they were an object of great interest and worth.

Along with their struggles against the Confederacy, they also faced other certain injustices regarding their pay. The pay for black soldiers was lower than that of white soldiers. It was an insult and to protest against it, both the soldiers and officers united to refuse the wage that had been assigned to them until when both the white and black soldiers would be accorded the same wage rates. However, the issue was not resolved until near the end of the war. Congress eventually passed a bill that equalized the pay for black Union soldiers on June 15, 1864. Francis H. Fletcher, 22-year old clerk who served in the 54th Massachusetts, was promoted to be a sergeant as time went by and was acknowledged for receiving the highest rank that a soldier could be accorded at a such particular time. Therefore, he expressed his resentment toward the discrimination that the African American soldiers encountered, especially when they could not enjoy the privileged of receiving the same pay as their fellow white soldiers in his letter addressed to Jacob C. Safford who was his great friend at such a time (Fletcher).

 The 54th Massachusetts Infantry faced many challenges and have created a reputation for themselves during the Civil War. After their preparation and training in the Boston Common, they boarded a transport ship for Charleston. On July 18, 1863, they prepared to perform a certain raid on Fort Wagner that was used to guard the Port of Charleston. At such a time, Shaw gathered 600 men and prepared them for action, testing them, stating,

“The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight”.. The 54th Massachusetts”.

Moreover, the Union generals did some wrong calculations as 1,700 Confederate white soldiers were found inside the fort as they waited to carry-on with the fight. The 54th were outgunned and outnumbered. Shaw was shot and died instantly as well as 281 soldiers being killed, wounded, or captured. They lost the battle at Fort Wagner, and casualties were high. However, it made a critical impact nonetheless. The battle brought recognition and inspired many to join their cause. They received praise for their bravery and valor. It was the mark and achievement that made them become the Civil War’s most famous African American regiment. It showed how African Americans were willing to risk their lives and die for the very nation that once enslaved them. So even though the battle resulted in high casualties as well as the death of commanding officer Robert Shaw, it depicted their bravery and dedication and their willingness to fight to their deaths for their country.

In conclusion, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry played a huge role in the Civil War. They were the first African American regiment within the US army. They faced many challenges not only in the battlefield, but against certain injustices regarding their pay as well. I believe they were a significant part in modern history. Their actions and bravery brought them recognition. It inspired and influenced many to join their cause. It showed that they were competent. It showed their worth within the battlefield and that they were willing to defend the Union with their lives. It proved their worthiness for battle and marked an important part of the Civil War in the history books.



Fletcher, Francis A. “Sergeant Francis Fletcher of the 54th Massachusetts on Equal Pay for Black

Soldiers, 1864”. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. n.d. Web. 25th January 2013.

Cox, C. (2007). Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. BackinPrint


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