Through this broadside in February 1863, Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the first call for Northern black soldiers in the Civil War.
1,000 men from across the country, including slave states, responded to his call and joined the Massachusetts 54th Infantry. Frederick Douglass’s own sons, Charles and Lewis, were among them. Black men were now allowed to fight, but they were not yet allowed to be officers. Therefore Governor Andrew appointed the white Robert Gould Shaw, the son of wealthy and prominent abolitionists, as colonel of the regiment. Like his parents, Shaw was committed to abolition and had dropped out of Harvard to join the Union Army. He was only 25 when he was appointed colonel of the Massachusetts 54th.
The regiment met on Boston Commons in May to begin their journey south. In his address to the troops, Governor Andrew expressed his pride, “I know not where in 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.” Spirits were high as the troops marched from Boston despite Jefferson Davis’s recent announcement that any black soldiers captured would be sold into slavery and that their white officers would be executed.
The 54th Massachusetts faced injustice not only from the Confederates, but also from within their own Union army. As seen on this broadside, black soldiers were promised the same salary as white soldiers, $13 a month, but they received only $10 a month. In protest, the entire regiment, including the white officers, refused to accept their wages until the pay was equal. This change was not instated until almost the end of the Civil War.
Also disappointingly, the regiment’s first assignment was to destroy the town of Darien, Georgia, an undefended town with no military significance. Shaw was furious! His troops had enlisted in the war to fight for freedom, not to plunder. Shaw wrote to his superiors and requested to lead a charge. His demand was granted at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
On July 18, 1863 Colonel Shaw assembled his troops to prepare them for the charge on Fort Wagner. He reminded them, “The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.” Though they did not know it, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry was outnumbered 1,700 to 600. Even so the men showed incredible bravery as the much larger Confederate defense repelled their charge. Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford took up the American flag when the flag bearer was shot. Though he was shot several times, he returned to the Union camp without ever letting the flag touch the ground.
Robert Gould Shaw himself was shot in the attack and his body fell into the fort. The confederates hoped to disgrace Shaw by burying him with his black troops in a mass grave. However Shaw’s parents responded that there could be “no holier place” for their son to be buried than “surrounded by brave and devoted soldiers.”
Before the war was over 167 black regiments were formed, and 186,097 black men served in the Union Army. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture of the regiment still stands on the Boston Commons. A little over twenty years ago, the 1989 film Glory won three academy awards for its retelling of the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
View more documents and photos from the 54th Massachusetts at the Massachusetts Historical Society.