How The All-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment Changed History During The Civil War

Published February 7, 2023
Updated April 20, 2023

Immortalized in the 1989 movie Glory, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of the most storied African American units that fought for the Union.

54th Massachusetts Regiment

MPI/Getty ImagesThe 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the July 1863 attack on Fort Wagner.

On a July day in 1863, a regiment of Union soldiers took their position near the Confederate-held Fort Wagner in South Carolina in preparation for battle. Like other Union troops, they were dressed in blue and carried bayonets.

But this regiment was unique. Unlike most other Union units, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was made up of all Black men.

Led by a white officer, Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was just the second all-Black Union unit of the Civil War. The unit had been formed in Massachusetts, but it drew men from all over America who were eager to fight after the Emancipation Proclamation allowed them to do so.

After months of training, the men of the 54th would fight bravely in the doomed assault on Fort Wagner. Though nearly half of them would be killed, injured, or taken prisoner during the attack, they would inspire Black men across the nation to pick up arms and help the Union win the war.

This is the incredible true story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the all-Black unit immortalized in the iconic 1989 movie Glory.

Inside The Historic Formation Of The 54th Massachusetts Regiment

Recruitment For Black Soldiers

National ArchivesA recruitment broadside for “colored troops” during the Civil War.

For the first two years of the Civil War, which began in 1861, Black men were not permitted to join the fight at all. As the National Archives notes, a 1792 law forbade Black people from bearing arms in the U.S. Army.

But all that changed with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Facing dwindling white enlistment, the U.S. government included a key provision in the historic document, according to the National Archives. It decreed that “such persons [Black men] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”

54th Massachusetts Regiment Recruitment
54th Massachusetts Regiment Soldier Charles Arnum
Miles Moore
William Netson
How The All-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment Changed History During The Civil War
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In Massachusetts, abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew soon opened up recruitment to Black men. But because his state had so few Black residents, just 13 percent of recruits came from Massachusetts. Black Past reports that other enlistees hailed from across the United States, Canada, and the West Indies. Of the 1,007 men who signed up, 30 had been former slaves.

Though the infantrymen were all Black, the Army required commanding officers to be white. So, Andrew tapped 25-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, a Harvard dropout and the son of abolitionists, to lead the all-Black regiment.

Robert Gould Shaw

Library of CongressRobert Gould Shaw, the 25-year-old commander of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

According to History, at a farewell parade for the soldiers on May 28, 1863, Andrew said, "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."

And with that, the men set off for battle. Two of the most famous soldiers in the ranks were Charles and Lewis Douglass, the sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Also included was a man named William Harvey Carney, who would soon distinguish himself on the battlefield.

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment And The Attack On Fort Wagner

Attack On Fort Wagner

Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty ImagesA depiction of the attack on Fort Wagner, led by the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

After raiding the town of Darien, Georgia, the men of the 54th marched to Charleston, South Carolina. There, they and other Union soldiers prepared to attack the Confederate-held Fort Wagner near the Port of Charleston.

Shortly before the battle, on July 18, 1863, Brigadier General George C. Strong rode among the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to steel their spirits. "Is there a man here who thinks himself unable to sleep in that fort tonight?" Strong demanded, according to the American Battlefield Trust.

The men of the 54th shouted their response: "No!"

Hoisting the American flag and indicating the flag bearer, Strong asked the troops, "If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?"

At that point, Shaw stepped forward. "I will," he said, eliciting the thunderous applause of his men.

As the sun went down, Shaw gathered 600 of his men outside the fort. "I want you to prove yourselves," he told the soldiers. "The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight."

That evening, Shaw led the charge toward the fort. "Forward Fifty-Fourth!" Shaw cried, just before he was struck with a bullet that killed him immediately. The other men of the 54th fought on, clamoring over the walls of the fort and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with Confederate troops.

In the melee, 23-year-old William Harvey Carney — a former slave — watched as the unit's flag bearer was shot down. As the flag bearer fell, Carney surged forward and caught the American flag.

William Harvey Carney

Public DomainWilliam Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery at Fort Wagner, though not until 1900.

"Boys, I did but my duty," Carney cried out to his men, once he'd made it through the battle wounded but alive, according to the National Park Service. "[T]he dear old flag never touched the ground!"

All in all, the 54th suffered greatly during the battle. According to the National Park Service, over 280 of the 600 men from the 54th who fought at Fort Wagner were killed, wounded, captured, or presumed dead. The American Battlefield Trust additionally noted that the Confederates had been "maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops," and they often shot men from the 54th instead of taking them as prisoners.

The Confederates tossed the dead soldiers in a mass grave and sent a taunting message to Union commanders that they had "buried [Shaw] with his n-----s." They'd hoped to insult Shaw's parents, who instead replied that there was "no holier place" for their son to be buried than a grave where he was "surrounded by... brave and devoted soldiers," per History.

Indeed, the bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment had a profound impact on countless Americans. The National Park Service reports that, following the attack on Fort Wagner, the U.S. Army immediately increased Black enlistment. By the end of the war, roughly 179,000 Black men had fought for the Union. That was about 10 percent of the whole Union Army.

But there's more to their story than that. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment had to fight many battles, and not all of them were on the actual battlefield.

The Struggles Faced By The All-Black Regiment

Though they had enlisted like all the other Union soldiers, men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment faced discrimination during their service. Black men in the Union Army only received $10 per week, while white soldiers received $13. The entire 54th Massachusetts Regiment — including officers — refused to accept payment until they could be paid equally. But this didn't happen until the Civil War was nearly over.

Even the memorial honoring the 54th Massachusetts Regiment didn't seem to treat them fairly. Unveiled in 1897, the monument depicted Shaw as the main point of focus with Black soldiers relegated to the background. What's more, the back of the memorial only included the names of the white officers who died in battle. It wasn't until 1981, according to Black Past, that the names of the Black soldiers who'd died were added.

54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial

Angela Rowlings/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty ImagesThe Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial in Boston.

Even heroes like William Harvey Carney had to wait decades to receive their due. He and other Black soldiers were often overlooked, and it wasn't until 1900 that Carney received the Medal of Honor for his bravery.

And the 1989 film Glory, which brought the 54th's story to the silver screen, had some notable misses. Though Robert Gould Shaw was a prominent character (played by Matthew Broderick), the Black soldiers in the film were all fictional. Glory did not mention Carney, Frederick Douglass' sons, or any other real Black servicemen, according to Black Past.

Morgan Freeman In Glory

TriStar Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty ImagesActor Morgan Freeman on the set of Glory. In the movie, he played the fictional character John Rawlins.

Indeed, the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment contains more than meets the eye. Though it's certainly a gripping account of Black men's bravery during the Civil War, it also illustrates the great challenges that Black soldiers faced. Not only were they belatedly allowed to fight, but they struggled against discrimination both during and after the conflict.

Yet the Black men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment met their challenges with grace, even when it took decades for them to be properly honored. Accepting the Medal of Honor nearly 40 years after he'd bravely scooped up the flag at Fort Wagner, William Harvey Carney said: "I only did my duty."

After reading about the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, look through these stunning colorized photos from the Civil War. Or, go inside the curious question of when the Civil War actually ended.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "How The All-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment Changed History During The Civil War.", February 7, 2023, Accessed April 21, 2024.