AfricanAmerican Troops In The Civil War

African-American Troops In The Civil War: The 54th Massachusetts Essay, Research Paper

African-American Troops in the Civil War: The 54th Massachusetts

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was organized in early 1863 by Robert

Gould Shaw, twenty-six year old member of a prominent Boston abolitionist family.

Shaw had earlier served in the Seventh New York National Guard and the Second

Massachusetts Infantry, and was appointed colonel of the Fifty-fourth in

February 1863 by Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew.

As one of the first black units organized in the northern states, the

Fifty-fourth was the object of great interest and curiosity, and its performance

would be considered an important indication of the possibilities surrounding the

use of blacks in combat. The regiment was composed primarily of free blacks from

throughout the north, particularly Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Amongst its

recruits was Lewis N. Douglass, son of the famous ex-slave and abolitionist,

Frederick Douglass.

After a period of recruiting and training, the unit proceeded to the

Department of the South, arriving at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on June 3,

1863. The regiment earned its greatest fame on July 18, 1863, when it led the

unsuccessful and controversial assault on the Confederate positions at Battery

Wagner. In this desperate attack, the Fifty-fourth was placed in the vanguard

and over 250 men of the regiment became casualties. Shaw, the regiment’s young

colonel, died on the crest of the enemy parapet, shouting, “Forward, Fifty-


That heroic charge, coupled with Shaw’s death, made the regiment a

household name throughout the north, and helped spur black recruiting. For the

remainder of 1863 the unit participated in siege operations around Charleston,

before boarding transports for Florida early in February 1864. The regiment

numbered 510 officers and men at the opening of the Florida Campaign, and its

new commander was Edward N. Hallowell, a twenty-seven year old merchant from

Medford, Massachusetts. Anxious to avenge the Battery Wagner repulse, the Fifty-

fourth was the best black regiment available to General Seymour, the Union


Along with the First North Carolina Colored Infantry, the Fifty-fourth

entered the fighting late in the day at Olustee, and helped save the Union army

from complete disaster. The Fifty-fourth marched into battle yelling, “Three

cheers for Massachusetts and seven dollars a month.” The latter referred to the

difference in pay between white and colored Union infantry, long a sore point

with colored troops. Congress had just passed a bill correcting this and giving

colored troops equal pay. However, word of the bill would not reach these troops

until after the battle of Olustee. The regiment lost eighty-six men in the

battle, the lowest number of the three black regiments present. After Olustee,

the Fifty-fourth was not sent to participate in the bloody Virginia campaigns

of 1864-1865. Instead it remained in the Department of the South, fighting in a

number of actions before Charleston and Savannah. More than a century after the

war the Fifty-fourth remains the most famous black regiment of the war, due

largely to the popularity of the movie “Glory”, which recounts the story of the

regiment prior to and including the attack on Battery Wagner.

To better show how the 54th felt underfire, here is a letter home from

Orderly Sergeant W.N. Collins of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry accounting

Plotter’s Raid.

“Well, we arrived at Georgetown, S.C., on the 3Ist (March 1865), and

went into camp. On the 1st of April we started upon our errand through the State,

and had nothing to molest us for three days. We saw nothing of the Johnnies, and

on Friday the 8th of April, at Epp’s Ferry, Cos. H and A were detached from the

regiment to go and destroy the said Ferry. Myself, one corporal and fifteen

privates were in the advance. On we went, neither hearing nor seeing any thing

in particular. After advancing about two miles, and wading through water and mud,

we spied a Johnny sitting upon his horse as a picket. He left his post and

secreted himself. Halting my men for further orders, I received instructions to

proceed forward with the utmost caution, and screen my men as much as possible

in the woods. The swamp through which we had to pass was waist-deep.

Onward we went, and after getting through the swamp, not over seventy-

five yards from Johnny, he saw that we were getting too close to him; and at

that time the Second-Lieutenant of Co. A came along, and I told him that Johnny

was getting ready to fire; and at that moment, Johnny’s balls began to fall

thick and fast around us.

The Lieutenant got wounded in the right arm. I had two men wounded – one

in the right leg, the other in both shoulders; and it appeared to us that the

Johnnies had nothing much but bird-shot to fire at us, which whizzed about our

ears in perfect showers. The writer got stung slightly in the left hand by one

of these diminutive missiles from Johnny’s shot-gun. They saw that we were

determined to complete the job, and they destroyed the levee and fled. So we

returned to our command on the 8th. We entered Manningville with a loss of but

one man killed, who belonged to the 4th Massachusetts Regiment.

On the I0th we left Manningville, and arrived at Sumterville on Sabbath,

the 11th; and after a short and sharp fight, we took the place, captured three

pieces of artillery complete, killed five rebels, wounded some more, and also

captured a few.

We encamped in the city that night, and destroyed the depot, together

with three locomotives and a train of thirty-five cars. We left on the I3th,

after destroying every thing that fire would burn, and went to Manchester, and

there destroyed one locomotive and a train of twenty cars.

The 54th was detailed to go seven miles from the place for the purpose

of destroying some trestle-work. After a considerable amount of delay, the

advance guard, which was from Co. F, Sergeant Frank M. Welch commanding, pushed

forth. They had not gone far when they espied a train of cars, with locomotive

attached, and a full head of steam on. The column at once halted and Colonel

Henry N. Hooper went forward to see for himself and there, sure enough, was the

train. The sharp report of a rifle soon told those on the train that the blood-

hounds were on the track. The engineer immediately jumped from the train and ran

for his life. Nothing could be seen of him but coat-tails and dust. The command

to move forward was given. With a loud yell and tremendous cheer the boys

charged over the trestle-work, three miles in length, caught the cars, and ran

them ourselves in place of the rebels.

Lieutenant Stephen A. Swails got wounded in his right arm. There are

forty cars and six locomotives, and we destroyed then all. Some of the cars were

loaded. We then turned the track upside-down. Sergeant Major John H. Wilson and

Private Gee. Jorris, of Co. A, got mashed by the cars. Private Jorris got his

collar-bone broken. The Sergeant Major has got partly over the injuries he


Leaving there, we encamped at Singleton’s plantation, and sent two

thousand contrabands to Georgetown in charge of the 32 U.S.C.T. When they

returned, we started upon our mission – and from that time, the 14th, we fought

every day with the rebels, and drove them before us. But at length they made a

stand at Swiss Creek, and fought desperately. We captured nine prisoners. On the

15th we left for the purpose of taking Camden, which we did capturing all of the

rebel sick and wounded there, numbering, a least, from three to four hundred men.

On the I6th. we left Camden, and from that we fought until we got to

Swiss Creek, where the rebels again made a stand. Cos. F and H were on the

skirmish line, the battalion on the reserve, the 102d U.S.C.T. in the center,

and the 3rd U.S.C.T. on the left wing. We drove them to their den, when they

fought quite desperately for a time. For if they flee from the horsemen, how can

they contend with the footmen? The rebels had a dam constructed all around them,

and there was no way of getting at them but to pass over it in single file. The

left wing went to extreme right for the purpose of flanking Johnny and there it

was that we lost our noble Lieutenant Edward L. Stevens. Who will help us mourn

his loss – for he fell in defense of the dear old flag?

Corporal Uames P. Johnson and Corporal Andrew Miller of Co. H had six

privates wounded. But the 54th stormed the hill and carried it at the point of

the bayonet, making themselves masters of the field, as they always do. Just

like them! Brave boys they are! Who will say, Three cheers for the 54th Mass.

Vols., 32d and I02d U.S.C.T., and for the 25th Ohio Vols., the I07th Ohio Vols.,

I5th and 56th N.Y. vols., and the 4th Mass., and the 3d New York Artillery, and

for General [Edward E.] Potter’s brave troops? For we are the ones that

destroyed and drove the rebels from the field, totally demoralizing them.

The last fight we had was at Statesburg, and there the rebels stood for

the last time; for we slaughtered them in great numbers. They left the field

strewn with their dead and wounded. We captured, for the rest, in South Carolina,

on our return to Georgetown, fifteen locomotives, and one hundred and forty cars

loaded with ammunition, small arms and stores. We destroyed them all. We

captured five hundred contrabands, five hundred prisoners, destroyed a vast deal

of property, and captured about eighty head of horses. We are now encamped at

Georgetown, and I hope we will soon be home with our friends and relatives.”

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