Created by Mary Kate Danaher



The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment played a critical role in African American history as the first African American unit to fight for the Union during the Civil War. They set the stage for future African-American soldiers by exerting courage, bravery, and strength throughout their time in the Civil War. They fought for a country that had not always been on their side.

The legacy left behind by the 54th Regiment is largely associated with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw,  who led the unit. While every group needs a leader, it is crucial to also remember the other individuals who sacrificed their lives fighting for the freedom of their race. Multiple works have showcased the memorialization of Shaw as opposed to the Regiment soldiers, such as the award-winning film, Glory, and the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston. While the full title includes the Regiment, many shorten the name to the "Shaw Memorial” which illustrated an issue in terms of recognition. 

Highsmith, Carol M, "The 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina mural,” Library of Congress. Washington D.C. 2010. Photograph.


The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was a military unit fighting for the North during the Civil War. It was the first unit consisting of Black soldiers. The Emancipation Proclamation, passed in 1862, allowed Black men to take on the role of a soldier. The specific language used in the Proclamation is, “Such persons [that is, African-American men] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed services of the United States.” Prior to this, the military and country rejected any efforts put forth by Black men to fight. 

State governors held the responsibility of raising regiments, so Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts (1861-1866) became the first to form an all-Black volunteer regiment. He selected a young white officer, Robert Gould Shaw, to lead the regiment. 

“Portrait of John Albion Andrew,” Massachusetts Historical Society, 1818-1867, Photograph.

Forming of the Regiment 

Governor Andrew appointed George L. Stearns to lead the recruitment process of the 54th Regiment. Andrew also created the Black Committee which was comprised of prominent citizens, such as Frederick Douglass, Amos A. Lawrence, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. Stearns and the Black Committee set out to raise money for the Regiment and ended up accruing $5000. 

 ““Enlistment Roll of Company A, 54th Regiment (Colored) Mass. Volunteers. recruited by Capt. J W. M. Appleton,” Massachusetts Historical Society, 1863, Document.

After extensive training, the Regiment received their battle flags on Bay 28, 1863. The day began with a parade of soldiers on Boston Common. Hundreds of Bostonians, both Black and white, cheered as the 1,007 soldiers and 37 officers marched by. They received the United States flag from Governor Andrew in the State House. In regard to the flag, Governor Andrew stated, “Whenever its folds shall be unfurled, it will mark the path of glory.” The Regiment continued to Battery Wharf and boarded ships to go to South Carolina.

 Recruitment Poster for the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment,”  Massachusetts Historical Society, 16 February 1863, Newspaper Advertisement.

Advertisements, such as the one you can see on this page, and recruitment posters for the Regiment offered a "$100 bounty at the expiration of the term of service, pay $13 per month, and State aid to families." Massachusetts did not have a large amount of eligible African-American residents, so soldiers came from all over the United States; some even came from Canada. Company B was primarily comprised of recruits from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In Company C, the soldiers were from New Bedford and Springfield, Massachusetts, while in Company D, the men were from Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. The Regiment brought in over 1000 volunteers, a quarter of which were from slave states or the Caribbean. The most notable volunteers were Charles and Lewis Douglass, the sons of Frederick Douglass.

Controversy About Regiment 

Many Americans at the time doubted the ability of Black soldiers to fight in a "white man's war." As the first unit of Black soldiers fighting for the North, the Regiment was carefully watched throughout their tenure. There was also question of the leadership capabilities of Black men, despite Governor Andrew's faith in them. In order to rally more support, Andrew handpicked white officers to lead the unit.

“Recruitment Poster To Colored Men,” National Archives, 1863-1894, Newspaper Advertisement.

There was also contention about the payment to the soldiers. Governor Andrew was promised by Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, that the Black soldiers would be treated the same as white soldiers, and would earn the same pay and clothing allowance. Although the advertisement for their recruitment boasted a state bounty and monthly pay of $13, a contradictory federal order was issued in July of 1863 stating that Black soldiers would only receive $10 a month. Offended by this hypocrisy, the Regiment soldiers continually refused this pay. Governor Andrew worked to get the money the soldiers deserved and passed an act in November of 1863, stating that the $3 difference would come from state funds. The soldiers refused to accept this money as well and demanded that they receive their proper pay from the federal government. As a result, many of the Regiment soldiers died without receiving any pay at all. Eventually, in September of 1864, the men received the money they earned from their time of enlistment. Additionally, each soldier received a $50 bounty, and later on, some men received an additional $325. 

Fort Wagner 

The soldiers decided to travel to South Carolina even though the Confederate Congress had announced that "every captured Black soldier would be sold into slavery and every white officer in command of Black troops would be executed." While Bostonians such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass gathered at the Common to support the Regiment, it is notable that hundreds of others did as well. They rallied around the group of courageous men during a time when many others opposed them. At the end of the parade, Governor Andrew stated, “I know not wherein all human history to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you.”

Quincy A. Gillmore,” Library of Congress, 1860-1870, Photograph.

The new Union commander, Brig. Gen. Quincy Gillmore was determined to capture Charleston, South Carolina. Gillmore had strategically planned to first take Morris Island, where Fort Wagner was located. Fort Wagner was massive - 600 feet wide and 30 feet high. Gillmore selected the 54th Regiment to spearhead the attack - a risky move in the eyes of some due to their inexperience. So, on July 18, 1863, Robert Gould Shaw led 600 troops to attack Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Right before the attack, Shaw said to the soldiers, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.” Shaw led the soldiers over the walls of Fort Wagner, which was rare for officers; they usually followed their troops in battle instead.

Members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 1st New York Engineers at the Siege of Fort Wagner, Morris Island, S.C, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1863, Photograph.

They penetrated the walls of the Fort at two spots, but they did not have enough soldiers to be victorious in their capture. 1,700 Confederate soldiers were inside the Fort, which was significantly more men and guns than the Regiment. Despite their loss, the Regiment left behind a legacy of bravery and courage. They scaled the walls of the Fort and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Confederate soldiers. Shaw shouted, "Onward boys! Onward boys!" but was killed by Confederate bullets. 

281 (almost half) of the Regiment soldiers were killed, captured, or wounded. Confederate General Johnson Hagood refused to give Shaw's body back to the Union and, in an attempt to show dishonor for the Regiment's leader, threw his body into a common grave with 74 of his soldiers. But, in regard to this burial, Shaw's father was quoted later as stating, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers....We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a bodyguard he has!”

Although the Regiment did not succeed in their capturing of Fort Wagner at the time, Confederate soldiers left shortly after the attack. For the next two years, the Regiment successfully led attacks in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. They returned to Boston in September of 1865. Besides these victories, the Regiment set the stage for future African-American soldiers. They proved that Black men were capable of fighting in the war. The Regiment's bravery led 180,000 Black men to enlist in the War, which Abraham Lincoln once noted as the development that helped secure the final victory.

The 54th Regiment Memorial 

Located across Beacon Street from the State House, the Memorial is officially titled "Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial", but many people shorten it to "The Shaw Memorial."  As you can see in the photograph of the Memorial, Shaw is portrayed on a horse with his soldiers marching in the background. Also, only his name is engraved on the monument, along with a poem by James Russell Lowell. The names of 62 soldiers who died at Fort Wagner were added to the back of the monument in a 1982 restoration. Shaw is also a much bigger figure and presence than the rest of the Regiment. This moment is intended to celebrate the Regiment's march down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863, before they headed down south. 

“Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial” NPS, Boston MA, Photograph. 

The bronze monument was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who took almost 14 years (1883-1897) to complete it. The National Park Service stated, "forty men were hired to serve as models for the soldiers’ faces. The monument was paid for by private donations and was unveiled in a ceremony on May 31, 1897." According to Henry Duffy, curator of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H, Saint-Gaudens was originally just going to focus the Memorial on Shaw. But, Shaw's parents demanded that the soldiers also had to be a part of it because Shaw was dedicated to them. 

The Memorial was controversial in its portrayal of Shaw compared to the soldiers. During most of the 20th Century, the Memorial was vandalized multiple times (even in the present moment). After the busing crisis in the 1970s, city leaders decided to restore it in order to bridge the gap between races. But, not every Bostonian shares the same viewpoint. Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African-American History stated, "It shows in their stance, in their eyes, their pride, and it shows them marching out of Boston for what they know is going to be a sea change in the history of their generation.

Works Cited

Appleton, John W. 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment List of Casualties, December 20, 1864. Worcester:   Massachusetts National Guard Museum & Archives.

"Assault of Battery Wagner and Death of Robert Gould Shaw." A&E Television Networks.

"The Battle of Fort Wagner Summary & Facts." Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust.

“Enlistment Roll of Company A, 54th Regiment (Colored) Mass. Volunteers. recruited by Capt. J W. M.

Appleton.”1863. Massachusetts Historical Society. Document.

Glory. Dir. Edward Zwick. Perf. Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Raymond St. Jacques. Tri-Star Pictures, 1989.

Highsmith, Carol M, "The 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina mural,” 2010. Library of Congress. Washington D.C. Photograph. Staff. "The 54th Massachusetts Infantry." A&E Television Networks, 2010.

"The Hope and Glory of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment." New England Historical Society. New England Historical Society, 28 May 2015.

Klein, Christopher. "Glory" Regiment Attacks Fort Wagner, 150 Years Ago." A&E Television Networks, 18 July 2013.

Kurz & Allison.“Storming Fort Wagner: charge of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment, July 18, 1863.” 1890. The New York Public Library. Print.

Levin, Kevin. "The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History." Civil War Memory. N.p., 23 Oct. 2009.

Levin, Kevin M. "How Should We Represent Black Civil War Soldiers?" The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 2 Aug. 2012.

Members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 1st New York Engineers at the Siege of Fort Wagner, Morris Island, S.C.” 1863. Massachusetts Historical Society. Photograph.

"MHS Collections Online: To Colored Men. 54th Regiment! Massachusetts Volunteers, Of African Descent." Massachusetts Historical Society.

Owens, Mackubin T. "History and the Movies: The Patriot and Glory." Ashbrook. Ashland University, July 2000.

Pelland, Dave. "CT" CT Monuments.

“Portrait of John Albion Andrew.”1818-1867. Massachusetts Historical Society. Photograph.

“Quincy A. Gillmore.” 1860-1870. Library of Congress. Photograph.

“Recruitment Poster To Colored Men.”  1863-1894. National Archives. Newspaper Advertisement.

“Recruitment Poster for the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment,” 16 February 1863. Massachusetts Historical Society. Newspaper Advertisement.

“Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial” NPS, Boston MA. Photograph.

Senna, Danzy. "High Soul Burn." Caucasia. New York: Riverhead, 1998. 340-41. Print.

Shea, Andrea. "Civil War's First African-American Infantry Remembered In Bronze."NPR. NPR, 18 July 2013.

United States National Park Service. “Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior.