Landmark Moments in American History: The 54th Massachusetts and the Battle of Ft. Wagner

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was the second African American regiment in American history. The unit consisted of 1,100 enlisted black soldiers led by white officers. The unit was active from march 13, 1863 until August 4, 1865. It participated in several battles including the Battle of Grimball’s Landing, the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, the Battle of Olustee, the Battle of Honey Hill, and the Battle of Boykin’s Mill.


African Americans were recruited to join the Union cause after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Governor of Massachusetts John A. Andrew was instructed by Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton to begin building all black regiments. Gov. Andrew selected Robert Gould Shaw, the son of prominent abolitionists, to serve as the regiment’s colonel, and Norwood Penrose Hallowell to serve as lieutenant colonel. Several notable abolitionists helped recruit for the regiment including Frederick Douglass and Shaw’s parents.


On May 28, 1863 the 54th left for Beaufort, South Carolina to join with the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, another all black regiment made up of freedmen and led by James Montgomery. Both regiments raided Darien, Georgia, driving out the town’s population. On July 16, 1863 the 54th engaged in the Battle of Grimball’s Landing near Charleston, South Carolina. They intended to draw troops away from Fort Wagner and were able to stop the Confederate advance.


On July 18 the 54th led an assault on a key military target along Charleston Harbor: Fort Wagner. The assault consisted of 4,000 men, 600 of which were with the 54th. It began at 7:45pm and required charge through a difficult stretch of 1,600 yards across marshland. The Union forces withdrew at 9:00 pm, unable to take the fort. 270 of the 54th’s men were injured, killed, or captured including Col. Shaw. Thinking it would shame his honor, Confederate troops buried Col. Shaw alongside his fallen troops. In response, Col. Shaw’s father wrote that he was in fact proud of this, especially since Col. Shaw had fought so hard for equality.


While they were unsuccessful, the 54th was lauded for its valor, ultimately encouraging further enlistment of African American soldiers. Sgt. William Harvey Carney was later awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the U.S. flag after the flag bearer fell. A song about his heroic efforts called “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground” was recorded in 1900. The events of the Battle of Fort Wagner and the heroics of the 54th have since been immortalized in art, monuments, poetry, and the Academy Award winning film Glory.


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