54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment

March 30, 1863–August 20, 1865

The 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment was one of the first African-American units to serve in the Union's volunteer army during the American Civil War.

54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment recruiting poster

This recruiting poster for the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment offered volunteers $13 per month, plus a clothing allowance for their service. For their first eighteen months in the army, the unit’s men refused their wages because the War Department tried to pay them only $10 per month, minus $3 for clothing — nearly half as much as white soldiers earned. [Wikimedia Commons]

Summary of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment

The 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment was one of the first African-American units to serve in the Union’s volunteer army during the American Civil War. Organized in the fall of 1862 and mustered into federal duty on March 30, 1863, the regiment served mostly in the Department of the South and fought at the Battle of Grimball’s Landing (July 16, 1863), the Battle of Fort Wagner (July 18, 1863), the Battle of Olustee (February 20, 1864), the Battle of Honey Hill (November 30, 1864), and the Battle of Boykin’s Mill (April 18, 1865). Mustered out of federal service on August 20, 1865, at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, the heroic deeds of the 54th were immortalized in 1989 in the acclaimed Hollywood feature film “Glory.”

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Portrait

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts from the time it was formed until his death at the Battle of Fort Wagner. Image Source: Library of Congress.

54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment Overview and History

During the first year of the Civil War, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln rejected the idea of recruiting African Americans for service in the Union Volunteer Army. Lincoln feared that mustering blacks into federal service might alienate Border States, prompting them to secede from the Union.

However, as Union military fortunes sagged in 1861 and 1862 (especially in the East), Republicans in Congress became more receptive to the idea. On July 8, 1862, Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced a bill focused on rectifying the Union’s mounting military problems. After a week of debate, the Senate approved Wilson’s amended proposal and sent it to the House, which passed it the next day. President Lincoln signed the bill, commonly known as the “Militia Act of 1862,” into law on July 17, 1862.

Among its many provisions, the legislation authorized the president “to receive into the service of the United States, for the purpose of constructing intrenchments, or performing camp service, or any other labor, or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent, persons of African descent . . . .” As an incentive for runaway or captured slaves to join the fight, section 13 of the act stipulated that the government would free former slaves who enlisted, along with their mothers, wives, and children.

Prior to the enactment of the Militia Act of 1862, three states organized African-American volunteer units: the Louisiana Native Guards (September 1862), 1st South Carolina Volunteer Regiment (Colored) (October 1862), and the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment (August 4, 1862). On May 13, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment became the first African-American unit to be recruited, organized, and mustered into federal service as authorized under the Militia Act of 1862. Eventually, 167 units, embracing 186,097 enlisted men of African descent, were mustered into the United States service.

Recruitment and Training

On January 26, 1863, U. S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issued orders stating:

That Governor Andrew of Massachusetts is authorized, until further orders, to raise such number of volunteers, companies of artillery for duty in the forts of Massachusetts and elsewhere, and such corps of infantry for the volunteer military service as he may find convenient, such volunteers to be enlisted for three years, or until sooner discharged, and may include persons of African descent, organized into special corps.

Wasting little time, Governor Andrew wrote to Francis G. Shaw on January 30, 1863, imploring him to convince his son, Captain Robert Gould Shaw—then serving with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry—to command and help recruit a new Massachusetts regiment of African-American soldiers. After some hesitation about leaving his current unit, Shaw telegraphed his acceptance on February 6, 1863.

On February 15, Governor Andrew appointed a committee to provide financial support for a recruiting drive. Headed by George L. Stearns, a prominent Boston businessman, the committee quickly raised over $5,000.

The next day, Andrew appointed John W. M. Appleton the tasks of organizing the recruitment and training of the new unit. Appleton quickly established a recruiting office at the corner of Cambridge and North Russell streets in Boston. On February 16, 1863, the following notice appeared in the Boston Journal:

To Colored men. Wanted. Good men for the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers of African descent, Col. Robert G. Shaw. $100 bounty at expiration of term of service. Pay $13 per month, and State aid for families. All necessary information can be obtained at the office, corner Cambridge and North Russell Streets.

Lieut. J. W. M. Appleton, Recruiting Officer.

By the end of March, Appleton had raised enough recruits to close the Boston recruiting office and move his headquarters to Camp Meigs, in nearby Readville, where he began training Company A of the new regiment.

For several reasons, recruitment soon began to languish. Massachusetts had relatively few free black men eligible to volunteer. Of those, many failed to meet the regiment’s high physical standards. Finally, on December 24, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had issued his infamous General Order, No. 111, declaring that “all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” For black volunteers, Davis’ edict could mean being forced into bondage if they were captured on the battlefield.

In response to dwindling recruitment, Stearns’ support group, which came to be known as the “Black Committee,” raised thousands of dollars to open branch recruiting offices across the country and purchase calls for black volunteers in newspapers. The response was remarkable. By March 30, 1863, Union army officials mustered the first four companies (A, B, C, and D) of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment into federal service. On April 23, companies E, F, and G joined the Union army, followed by companies H, I, and K on May 13. Enough volunteers continued to arrive to form a second regiment, the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, which mustered into service on June 22, 1863.

Most of the roughly 1,000 men who volunteered for service with the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment were free blacks who had never been slaves. Many came from other states, including slave states in rebellion. Others came from Canada and as far away as the Caribbean. Two of the more notable volunteers were Charles and Lewis Douglass, sons of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

On May 28, 1863, after two months of training, Governor Andrew presented the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment with its colors. Afterward, the regiment’s thirty-seven officers marched 1,007 soldiers, armed with Enfield rifles, through the streets of Boston and boarded the transport ship De Molay for their journey south to meet the enemy.

Deployment and First Action

Six days after leaving Boston, the De Molay entered Port Royal Sound, and the men of the 54th disembarked at the town of Beaufort, South Carolina. Following the Union victory at the Battle of Port Royal on November 7, 1861, Beaufort and neighboring Hilton Head Island had served as headquarters for the Department of the South, commanded by Major General David Hunter.

After spending four days in Beaufort, the 54th moved to Port Royal Island and began fatigue work, building roads and fortifications. On June 8, 1863, the regiment traveled to Hilton Head, where Colonel Shaw received orders to join Colonel James Montgomery’s 2nd South Carolina Volunteers (another African-American regiment) for a foray into northern Georgia.

Under Montgomery’s command, the combined units steamed eighty miles south to St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia, landing without resistance on June 10. The next day, the expedition traveled fifteen miles up the Altamaha River and sacked the nearly deserted town of Darien, Georgia. After the Federals plundered every building, including nearly 100 homes, Montgomery ordered his men to torch the entire town. Appalled by the wanton destruction, Colonel Shaw later learned that Montgomery acted in accordance with General Hunter’s orders.

Timeline of Important Battles for the 54th Massachusetts

July 16, 1863 — Battle of Grimball’s Landing

On June 12, 1863, one day after the sacking of Darien, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore arrived at Hilton Head Island and General Hunter issued General Orders, No. 46 (Department of the South) announcing that the War Department had temporarily relieved him of command. On the same day, Gillmore issued General Orders, No. 47 (Department of the South) announcing that he was assuming command.

Almost immediately after assuming command of the Department of the South and the 10th Army Corps, Gillmore began developing plans to capture the City of Charleston, South Carolina, the cradle of the southern rebellion. His primary obstacle was Fort Sumter, which the Confederates had seized on April 14, 1861, touching off the war. Gillmore meant to regain Union control of the stronghold guarding the mouth of Charleston Harbor. To do so, he needed first to eliminate Fort Wagner (aka Battery Wagner) near the northern end of Morris Island at the mouth of the harbor.

To divert attention from his planned assault against Fort Wagner, Gillmore ordered Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry to launch a diversionary occupation of James Island, between Morris Island and Charleston. Terry’s invasion began on July 10, 1863. By July 11, his force of 3,800 Federals—including most of the 54th—occupied the island unopposed.

Terry’s diversionary offensive succeeded. Between July 10 and July 16, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was in charge of Confederate defenses near Charleston, began funneling troops from Morris Island to James Island.

On July 16, 1863, a Confederate force of roughly 3,000 soldiers commanded by Brigadier General Johnson Hagood attacked the Yankees occupying James Island. While facing enemy fire for the first time during the battle, 250 men of the 54th held back 900 Rebels while Terry prepared to evacuate the island on July 17.

The 54th suffered forty-five casualties (fourteen killed, eighteen wounded, and thirteen missing) during the Battle of Grimball’s Landing. During the engagement, Terry instructed the regiment’s adjutant to “tell your colonel that I am exceedingly pleased with the conduct of your regiment. They have done all they could do.” Later, Terry noted “the steadiness and soldierly conduct of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment who . . . met the brunt of attack.”

July 18, 1863 — Battle of Fort Wagner

On the same day that General Terry invaded James Island, July 10, 1863, General Gillmore ordered Brigadier General George Crockett Strong to launch an amphibious assault on Morris Island. Although the attack failed to capture Morris Island, Strong’s troops established a beachhead on its southern end.

On July 18, 1863, just one day after they evacuated James Island, the 54th joined Gillmore’s force occupying the southern end of Morris Island. Having gone two days without regular rations, the regiment’s men were hungry and tired.

Throughout the day, they listened to an unprecedented land and sea shelling of Fort Wagner on the other end of the island. Beginning at 8:15 a.m., and lasting nearly eleven hours, Union cannoneers unleashed one of the heaviest bombardments of the war to date.

Upon reporting to General Strong after his arrival on Morris Island, Colonel Shaw learned that the bombardment was to prepare for an evening assault against Fort Wagner. Knowing Shaw’s desire to prove the mettle of the black soldiers, Strong offered, “You may lead the column. Your men, I know, are worn out, but do as you choose.” Shaw accepted Strong’s offer.

As daylight faded, 624 men of the 54th came forward to serve as the vanguard of a force of about 5,000 Union soldiers ordered to attack Fort Wagner. At 7:45, the Federals moved forward across a narrow spit of land. They soon discovered that eleven hours of Union shelling had done little to reduce Fort Wagner’s Confederate garrison or their defenses. As the Yankees moved to within 150 yards of the fort’s outer wall, Confederate Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”) ordered his men to open fire.

The regiment’s adjutant, Garth Wilkinson James, later recalled that “A sheet of flame flashed out, followed by a running fire, like electric sparks!” Still, the men of the 54th pressed on between the sharpened wooden stakes that surrounded the fort and through a water-filled ditch. As Shaw ascended the fort’s earthen parapet, leading those who survived the hail of hot lead, he shouted “Forward, 54th!” before being struck down by three fatal bullet wounds.

Amid the chaos, Sergeant William Carney saw the man bearing the American flag fall. Carney tossed aside his musket, grabbed the flag, and continued up the parapet in the face of deadly fire. Thirty-seven years later, on May 23, 1900, Carney became the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic action that day. On April 16, 1864, Seaman Robert Blake was the first black service member to physically receive the Medal of Honor; on July 18, 1863, Carney was the first African American to perform the action that earned him the Medal of Honor.

Battle of Fort Wagner, 54th Storming the Battery

This illustration depicts soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts storming Fort Wagner. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Upon reaching the crest, the few men left standing were unable to hold their position and began falling back. Other Federals joined the fray, but try as they may, they could not dislodge the Confederate defenders. By 10:30 p.m., the fight was over.

The Confederates scored an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Fort Wagner. The Rebels suffered only 174 casualties (36 killed, 133 wounded, and 5 missing). The Union lost 1,515 men (246 killed, 880 wounded, and 349 missing or captured). The 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment suffered the brunt of the losses. Of the 624 soldiers who led the Yankees into battle, twenty-nine were killed and twenty-four others later died of wounds. Fifteen were captured, fifty-two were missing and never accounted for, and 149 were wounded.

When the Rebels cleared the battlefield of the dead and wounded, they dumped all the bodies of the fallen Federals—including Colonel Shaw’s—into a single unmarked grave. They then boasted, “we have buried [Shaw] with his n*****s.” The Confederates hoped that this would discourage white officers from leading black troops. Shaw’s parents dispelled that notion by replying that there could be “no holier place” to be buried than “surrounded by…brave and devoted soldiers.”

Under the provisions of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ infamous General Order, No. 111 (December 24, 1862), the black soldiers captured during the Battle of Fort Wagner were outlaws, to be delivered to the State authorities for trial for insurrection, facing penalties of enslavement or death. Fearing for the lives and well-being of African-American soldiers captured at Fort Wagner, President Lincoln issued an executive order on July 30 stating, in part:

To sell or enslave any captured person on account of his color, and for no offence against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age. The Government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers; and if the enemy shall sell or enslave any one because of his color, the offence shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our hands.

It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a Rebel soldier shall be executed, and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a Rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continue at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due a prisoner of war.

Abraham Lincoln

A year later, on July 24, 1864, military officials negotiated a prisoner exchange for soldiers captured during the Battle of Fort Wagner. Thirty-eight Confederates were exchanged for 105 Federals, but none of the 54th’s prisoners were given up.

Following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Fort Wagner, General Gillmore besieged the Rebel bastion. For the next eight weeks, Union cannoneers shelled the fortress until the Confederates abandoned it on September 6, 1863.

The lengthy siege of Fort Wagner required the troops garrisoned on Morris Island to perform numerous fatigue duties, such as cleaning the camp, gathering firewood, fetching water, digging latrines, building or repairing roads and trenches, unloading and transporting supplies, and standing watch. As was common during the Civil War, army officers assigned these tasks to African-American soldiers. Records of the siege of Fort Wagner indicate that of roughly 19,000 cumulative workdays performed by the garrison, the black regiments (the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, 1st North Carolina, 2nd South Carolina, and 3rd United States Colored Troops) did half of the work, though they numbered one-tenth of the garrison.

February 20, 1864 — Battle of Olustee (aka Battle of Ocean Pond)

Five months after federal forces captured Fort Wagner, General Gillmore ordered Brigadier General Truman Seymour to lead an expedition from Hilton Head to Florida. Gillmore hoped to disrupt Confederate supply lines, recruit black soldiers, and restore Union authority in the state. As one of two regiments comprising Colonel James Montgomery’s infantry brigade, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment joined Seymour’s force of 5,500 soldiers.

On February 7, 1864, Seymour landed at Jacksonville, Florida (under Union control since March 1862), and quickly began advancing inland. As the Yankees moved toward Lake City, roughly sixty miles west, they met little resistance from the scant Confederate units in the District of East Florida commanded by Brigadier General Joseph Finegan.

When Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard learned of Seymour’s expedition, he dispatched Alfred H. Colquitt’s brigade from Charleston to bolster Finegan’s small Rebel force. Unbeknownst to Seymour, by the time the Federals approached Olustee, Florida, about twelve miles east of Lake City, on February 20, they faced an entrenched Rebel force nearly equal in size.

As Seymour moved west, Finegan dispatched an infantry brigade to halt his advance. Still believing that he was engaging Florida militia units, Seymour deployed units piecemeal. The action soon escalated to become the largest military engagement fought on Florida soil during the Civil War.

When Finegan committed his reserves, the Rebels broke the Union line. As the Confederates tried to press their advantage, soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 35th United States Colored Troops delayed them long enough for Seymour to conduct an orderly retreat.

The Confederacy lost 934 soldiers during their victory at the Battle of Olustee (93 killed and 841 wounded). Union casualties totaled 1,828 (193 killed, 1,175 wounded, and 460 missing). Casualty reports for the 13 officers and 497 enlisted men of the 54th who fought at Olustee showed 3 officers wounded, and enlisted totals of 84 (13 killed, 63 wounded, and 8 missing). Some Confederate memoirs and letters suggest Rebel troops killed most of the wounded and black soldiers of the 54th and other units after the battle.

November 30, 1864 — Battle of Honey Hill

On April 17, 1864, the 54th left Florida and returned to Morris Island, where they remained in garrison until November. During that period, on May 26, Major General John G. Foster took command of the Department of the South. When Major General William T. Sherman began his March to the Sea, he telegraphed Union Army Chief-of-Staff Henry W. Halleck on November 11: “I would like to have Foster break the Charleston and Savannah Railroad about Pocotaligo about the 1st of December.”

Halleck relayed Sherman’s request to Foster, who organized a force named the “Coast Division,” commanded by General John P. Hatch to complete the task. The 6,000-man division included twenty-one officers and 540 enlisted men of the 54th who were part of General Edward. E. Potter’s First Brigade.

Hatch’s division left Hilton Head by naval transport on December 29, 1864, and steamed up the Broad River. After disembarking at Boyd’s Landing, they marched toward Grahamville, South Carolina, about twenty miles northwest. However, inexact maps, mediocre guides, and poor weather hampered their progress by a day. The delay enabled a Confederate force of nearly 2,000 foot-soldiers, cavalrymen, and artillerymen to entrench and block the Yankee’s path near Honey Hill, a few miles south of Grahamville.

On November 30, 1864, several determined attacks by African-American troops, including the 54th, failed to dislodge the Confederates from their entrenchments. By nightfall, Hatch recognized the futility of further attacks and withdrew to his transports.

The Confederates reported only forty-seven casualties at the Battle of Honey Hill (8 killed and 39 wounded), but their losses likely exceeded 100. Hatch’s Coastal Division casualties totaled 746 (89 killed, 629 wounded, and 28 missing). The 54th losses included one officer killed and three wounded, and 40 enlisted casualties (1 killed, 35 wounded, and 4 missing).

Hatch’s failure to sever the Charleston and Savannah Railroad had little, if any, impact on Sherman’s progress. On December 24, 1864, Savannah Mayor R. D. Arnold surrendered Savannah.

April 18, 1865 — Battle of Boykin’s Mill

By mid-April 1865, the Civil War in the East was grinding to an end. General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9. One week later, on April 17 (two days after President Abraham Lincoln’s death), General Sherman met with General Joseph E. Johnston near Hillsborough, North Carolina, to negotiate the surrender of the Army of Tennessee, the Confederacy’s last standing army in the East. As the two generals hammered out the terms of surrender, sporadic fighting continued in the Carolinas.

One month earlier, on March 12, 1865, Sherman wrote to General John G. Foster, “The enemy still has much railroad stock and munitions on the track about Summerville and Florence, and if you can make up a force of two thousand five hundred men out of your Charleston and Savannah garrison, I want you to reach that road and destroy everything possible and exhaust the country of supplies.”

In compliance with Sherman’s request, officials in the Department of the South organized a “Provisional Division” commanded by Brigadier General Edward E. Potter at Georgetown, South Carolina. Divided into two brigades, the division comprised six infantry regiments. Assigned to Colonel Edward N. Hallowell’s second brigade, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment supplied roughly 700 men to Potter’s 2,700-man division.

At 8 a.m., on April 5, 1865, Potter’s Provisional Division departed Georgetown to raid South Carolina’s Low Country. Covering over 300 miles in three weeks, the Yankees destroyed railroad property (locomotives, cars, shops, storehouses, and depots), burned cotton, plundered businesses, and looted homes. The raiders met little Confederate resistance until they approached the small town of Boykin, South Carolina, on April 18. There, they encountered a well-entrenched force of roughly 800 men and boys commanded by General Pierce M. B. Young.

As soldiers of the 54th attempted to cross Swift Creek near Boykin’s Mill, the Rebels unleashed a volley that killed two men and wounded four others. Seeing that the Confederate position was strong, the Federals withdrew. Four companies of the regiment then made a diversionary attack one-quarter-mile downstream. During that maneuver, a Rebel marksman shot Lieutenant Edward L. Stevens from his saddle, killing him instantly. Stevens was the last Union officer killed during the Civil War.

Eventually, the Yankees brought a cannon forward. A few shells, coupled with a courageous charge from the 54th, convinced the Rebels to beat a hasty retreat.

Confederate losses at the Battle of Boykin’s Mill are unknown. Besides the death of Stevens, the 54th suffered fifteen casualties (two killed and thirteen wounded). That total was the highest sustained by any regiment in any action during Potter’s Raid.

Following the Battle of Boykin’s Mill, the Yankee raiders continued on their mission of destruction for three days before receiving orders to return to Georgetown on April 21, which they reached on April 25.

Potter’s Raid lasted twenty-one days. During that period, the Federals covered roughly 300 miles through South Carolina’s Low Country. Potter later claimed to have destroyed numerous locomotives and rail cars, miles of rail line, several trestles, and 51,000 bales of cotton. When he returned to Hilton Head, one authority reported that roughly 5,000 slaves liberated during the raid followed him.

Final Duties and End of the 54th Massachusetts

Following Potter’s Raid, the 54th reported to Charleston, South Carolina, for police duty. On August 20, 1865, at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, the regiment mustered out of volunteer service and was ordered back to Massachusetts. Arriving in Boston on August 22-23, the unit garrisoned on Gallop’s Island for one week. On September 1, the men received their final payments. The next day, they paraded through the streets of Boston, and the regiment disbanded.

54th Massachusetts and the Pay Controversy

Throughout much of their service fighting for the Union, the men of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry also had to fight prejudice and discrimination within their own army. Perhaps the more glaring example of the injustice they experienced was the disparity between their pay and the wages of white soldiers.

When recruits volunteered for service with the 54th, the government promised them the same wages white soldiers received—$13 a month, plus food and clothing. When they were to be paid for the first time, on July 30, 1863, the men who mustered in for pay learned that the army was paying them only $10 per month, minus $3 deducted for clothing, reducing their actual wage to $7 per month. Outraged, the black soldiers refused to accept their pay even though it created hardships for many of their families back home.

Despite protests from the regiment’s white officers, and petitions from influential politicians, including Massachusetts Governor Andrew, the army refused to budge. When Andrew and the Massachusetts assembly enacted “An Act to make up the Deficiencies in the Monthly Pay of the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Regiments” on November 16, 1863, the black soldiers again refused their pay. A letter from one of the regiment’s soldiers printed in the Boston Journal, dated December 12, 1863, explained the soldiers’ rationale:

Three times have we been mustered in for pay. Twice have we swallowed the insult offered us by the United States paymaster, contenting ourselves with a simple refusal to acknowledge ourselves different from other Massachusetts soldiers. Once, in the face of insult and intimidation such as no body of men and soldiers were ever subjected to before, we quietly refused and continued to do our duty. For four months we have been steadily working night and day under fire.

Imagine our surprise and disappointment on the receipt by the last mail of the Governor’s address to the General Court, to find him making a proposition to them to pay this regiment the difference between what the United States Government offers us and what they are legally bound to pay us, which, in effect, advertises us to the world as holding out for money and not from principle, — that we sink our manhood in consideration of a few more dollars.

Pressured by abolitionist congressmen, a letter-writing campaign by soldiers and their families, and eventually the threat of mutiny, Congress finally resolved the issue by enacting a bill on June 15, 1864, granting equal pay to African-American soldiers. On September 28, 1864, the federal government retroactively paid the soldiers of the 54th paid what they were promised when they volunteered eighteen months previously.

Leaders of the 54th Massachusetts

The 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment had several notable commanders and officers during its existence. Among them were:

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Shaw led the regiment from March 30, 1863 (the unit’s mustering in date,) until July 18, 1863, when he was killed during the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Captain Luis F. Emilio

Emilio briefly led the 54th in the field during the Battle of Fort Wagner when the officers above him were wounded or killed in action. In 1891, he published A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of the Massachusetts Infantry, 1863-1865. His book remains the most complete accounting of the deeds of the 54th during the Civil War.

Colonel Milton S. Littlefield

Littlefield of the Fourth South Carolina (Colored) Infantry was assigned to temporary command of the 54th Massachusetts on July 20, 1863, while Colonel Edward N. Hallowell recovered from wounds he received during the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Colonel Edward N. Hallowell

Hallowell was wounded three times while leading the left wing of the Union force during the Battle of Fort Wagner. After recuperating from his wounds, he commanded the 54th from October 1863 until the regiment mustered out of service.

First Lieutenant Stephen Swails

Swails was an African-American volunteer who joined Company F of the 54th on April 23, 1863. Swails rose from the company’s first-sergeant to acting sergeant-major after the Battle of Fort Wagner. During the Battle of Olustee, Swails received a serious head wound while rallying the Union forces as they retreated.

On February 26, 1864, Colonel Hallowell, wrote to Governor Andrew recommending that Swails be commissioned as an officer. One month later, Andrew approved Hallowell’s recommendation and promoted Swails to second-lieutenant. The War Department, however, refused to authorize the promotion because of “Lieutenant Swails’ African descent.”

After a lengthy battle that lasted nearly a year, while Swails continued to serve as an enlisted man, the War Department relented and allowed Swails to muster as a second lieutenant on January 17, 1865.

Although other African American officers preceded Swails in the Union Army, they served as staff officers, chaplains, and surgeons. As the first black line officer, Swails opened the door for African-Americans to lead troops of all colors beyond the company level.

The army promoted Second-Lieutenant Swails to first-lieutenant on April 28, 1865.

Casualties for the 54th Massachusetts

During the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment’s eighteen months of duty in the volunteer army, 1,354 officers and enlisted men served in its ranks. Of those, five officers and 95 soldiers were killed in action or mortally wounded. Another 106 men were reported as captured or missing; nineteen of them are known to have died in prison, thirty lived to be released, and fifty-seven were never accounted for. Another twenty officers and 274 soldiers were wounded, bringing total casualties for the regiment to 500.

Significance of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment

The 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment was important because, as one of the first African-American units to serve in the Union Volunteer Army, it demonstrated that black men could effectively serve as combat soldiers. The valor of the men of the 54th paved the way for over 186,000 enlisted soldiers of African descent who later volunteered to help preserve the Union.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment
  • Date March 30, 1863–August 20, 1865
  • Author
  • Keywords african american, black, soldiers, fort wagner, glory
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024