54th Regiment

Tell it with Pride Exhibtion

Celebrating Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ magisterial Shaw Memorial (1883–1900), and the real soldiers of the 54th represented anonymously in the memorial. More about the exhibition...

Overview

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. Prior to 1863, no concerted effort was made to recruit black troops as Union soldiers. The passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862 provided the impetus for the use of free black men as soldiers and, at a time when state governors were responsible for the raising of regiments for federal service, Massachusetts was the first to respond with the formation of the Fifty-fourth Regiment.

The formation of the regiment was a matter of controversy and public attention from its inception. Questions were raised as to the black man's ability to fight in the "white man's war." Although Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew believed that black men were capable of leadership, others felt that commissioning blacks as officers was simply too controversial; Andrew needed all the support he could get. The commissioned officers, then, were white and the enlisted men black. Any black officers up to the rank of lieutenant were non-commissioned and reached their positions by moving up through the ranks. On 28 May 1863, upon the presentation of the unit's colors by the governor and a parade through the streets of Boston, spectators lined the streets with the hopes of viewing this experimental unit. The regiment then departed Boston on the transport De Molay for the coast of South Carolina.

 

Selected Portraits

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Recruiting and Enlisting Soldiers

 

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Fort Wagner

 

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Sources for Further Research

The Society holds other manuscripts and photographs related to the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment. Among these are the Nathaniel Bowditch photograph albums containing portraits and scenes of Fort Wagner; papers of Governor John A. Andrew related to the recruitment and enlistment of the regiment (including the letter Andrew sent to Francis Shaw, in which Andrew explains why he has offered the command of the 54th to Shaw's son, Robert); the personal papers of Norwood P. Hallowell of the 54th and 55th regiments; and a small collection of letters from Robert Gould Shaw to his friend Charles F. Morse, which were written from Boston, Readville, and South Carolina prior to the assault on Fort Wagner.  The Society also holds some collections relating to other black Massachusetts regiments including the Association of Officers of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry records the personal papers of Colonel Charles B. Fox, whose diary was used for the regimental history of the 55th Infantry; and a photograph album (carte de visite) of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.