The 54th Colored Volunteer Infantry of Massachusetts: Heroes of the Civil War


The 54th Colored Volunteer Massachusetts Regiment was one of the first official black units in the U.S. armed forces, authorized in 1863.  This all-black infantry regiment exhibited extreme courage and courage during the Civil War.  The 1989 film “Glory” starring Denzel Washington was based on “The 54th,” as it’s called.

President Lincoln, with the support of black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, encouraged the use of black troops.  There were thousands of runaway slaves and freed blacks who wanted to fight for their freedom and joined the Union Troops wherever they appeared.

General Ulysses Grant, whose army occupied the southern states where there were the most black refugees, was an enthusiastic supporter of the use of black troops, and in an August 1863 letter to President Lincoln he stated:

“…by arming the Negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy the enlistment a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.”

The governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, commanded Colonel Robert Gould Shaw to lead the infantry, which consisted of over 1,000 black volunteers, including two sons of Frederick Douglas: Major Lewis H. Douglas and Sargent Charles Raymond Douglas.

54th Colored Volunteer Infantry, Black HistoryWhen the Confederates learned of the black soldiers, they passed a proclamation that colored volunteers and their leaders would be killed if caught. The 54th’s first major battle was at Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C.  The regiment gained widespread recognition on July 18, 1863, when it spearheaded the assault.

The 54th lost 272 of the 600 men who charged Fort Wagner. The infantry became well known for their courage. Many naysayers who swore black people would not fight for their freedom. The 54th proved them wrong in battle after battle.

President Abraham Lincoln once noted that the 54th and the other blacks fighting for the Union Army and the abolition of slavery had proven necessary to secure the final victory.  After 1863, nearly179, 000 black people fought for the Union Army.

Decades later, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing the U.S. flag as the flag bearer fell at Fort Wagner. Carney was the first black person awarded the Medal of Honor. Let us salute the 54th and never forget them.

Attorney Jacqueline Hubbard graduated from the Boston University Law School. She is currently the president of the St. Petersburg Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.

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