The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, an infantry regiment that fought in the American Civil War, was one of the first official black units in the United States armed forces. An earlier regiment of black freedmen, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, had fought alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War.
The soldiers were recruited by white abolitionists (including Shaw's parents). These recruiters included Lieutenant J. Appleton, also the first man commissioned in the regiment, whose recruiting efforts included posting a notice in the Boston Journal and holding a recruiting rally. This recruitment group was later known as "The Black Committee". The 54th Massachusetts was composed of primarily free men. A number of the recruits were from states other than Massachusetts, with several coming from Pennsylvania and New York. Many of the Pennsylvania recruits were obtained in Philadelphia through the efforts of Lieutenant Colonel Norwood Hallowell's brother Edward N. Hallowell. Two of the recruits were sons of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Soon afterwards, a second black regiment, the 55th Massachusetts, was organized and began training. Several officers initially slated for the 54th were further promoted for service in the 55th including LTC Norwood P. Hallowell and the future brigade commander over the 54th Captain (later Colonel) Alfred S. Hartwell.
The 54th trained at Camp Meigs in Readville near Boston. While there they received considerable moral support from abolitionists in Massachusetts including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Material support included warm clothing items, battle flags and $500 contributed for the equipping and training of a regimental band. As it became evident that many more recruits were coming forward than were needed the medical exam for the 54th was described as "rigid and thorough" by the Massachusetts Surgeon-General. This resulted in what he described as the most "robust, strong and healthy set of men" ever mustered into service in the United States. Despite this, as was common in the Civil War, a few men died of disease prior to the 54th's departure from Camp Meigs.
By most accounts the 54th left Boston with very high morale. This was despite the fact that because of Jefferson Davis' proclamation of December 23, 1862 both African-American enlisted men and white officers were effectively under a death sentence. The proclamation was affirmed by the Confederate Congress in January 1863 and turned both enlisted soldiers and their white officers over to the states from which the enlisted soldiers had been slaves. As most Southern states had enacted draconian measures for "servile insurrection" after Nat Turner's Rebellion the likely sentence was a capital one.
The 54th left Boston to fight for the Union on May 28, 1863. It started off performing only manual labor. The regiment gained notoriety in a raid on the town of Darien, Georgia, after being ordered to loot and burn the town by Col. James Montgomery. The 54th's participation in this raid was minimal and reluctant. Colonel Shaw initially objected to what he called a "Satanic action".
The regiment gained recognition on July 18, 1863, when it spearheaded an assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. At this battle, Colonel Shaw was killed, along with one-hundred and sixteen of his men. Another hundred and fifty-six were wounded or captured. The total casualties of 272 would be the highest total for the 54th in a single engagement during the war. Although the Union was not able to take and hold the fort, the 54th was widely acclaimed for its valor, and the event helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of African-American troops, a key development that President Abraham Lincoln once noted as helping to secure the final victory. Decades later, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing the US flag as the flag bearer fell, carrying the flag to the enemy ramparts and back, and saying "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!" While other African-Americans had since been granted the award, Carney's is the earliest action for which the Medal of Honor was awarded to an African-American.
Ironically, during the week leading up to the 54th's heroic sacrifice near Charleston, simmering racial strife climaxed in the New York Draft Riots. African-Americans on the city's waterfront and Lower East Side were beaten, tortured, and lynched by white mobs angered over conscription for the Union war effort. These mobs directed their animosity toward blacks because they felt the Civil War was caused by them. However, the bravery of the 54th would help to assuage anger of this kind.
Under the command of Colonel E. N. Hallowell, the 54th fought a rear-guard action covering the Union retreat at the Battle of Olustee. As part of an all-black brigade under Col. Alfred S. Hartwell, they unsuccessfully attacked entrenched Confederate militia at the November 1864 Battle of Honey Hill. In mid-April 1865, they fought at the Battle of Boykin's Mill, a small affair in South Carolina that proved to be one of the last engagements of the war.
After Shaw's death at Fort Wagner, Colonel E. N. Hallowell took up the fight to get full back pay for the troops. His second in command LTC Hooper took command of the regiment on June 18, 1864 after Hallowell was granted permission to proceed North to press the claims of the regiment for equal pay in person. After nearly a month Hallowell returned on July 16. Finally the U.S. congress took action and on September 28, 1864, the men of the 54th were paid from enlistment, most after 18 months of service, amounting to $170,000, of which $100,000 was sent home by Adams' Express.
The Congressional bill authorized equal and full pay to those enlisted troops who were free men as of April, 1861. Of course not all the troops qualified. Colonel E. N. Hallowell, a Quaker, rationalized that because he did not believe in slavery he could therefore have all the troops swear that they were free men. Before being given their back pay the entire regiment was administered what became known as "the Quaker oath." Colonel Hallowell skillfully crafted the oath to say: “You do solemnly swear that on or before the 19th day of April 1864, no man had the right to demand unrequited labor of you so help you lord.” It should be noted that Colonel Hallowell, wrote a "typo" in his hand-written transcript of the oath and actually said "1861" while administering the oath.
The regiment was disbanded after the Civil War, but retains a strong legacy. A monument, constructed 1884 – 1897 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on the Boston Common, is part of the Boston Black Heritage Trail. A famous composition by Charles Ives, "Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment," the opening movement of Three Places in New England, is based both on the monument and the regiment.
Colonel Shaw and his men also feature prominently in Robert Lowell's Civil War Centennial poem For the Union Dead (1964); Lowell invokes the realism of the Saint-Gaudens monument in this stanza:
Later he unflinchingly looks at Shaw's and his men's death in the powerful stanza:
A Northern officer had asked for the return of Shaw's body but was allegedly informed by the Confederate command, "We buried him with his niggers. Shaw's father wrote in response that he was proud that Robert, a fierce fighter for equality, had been buried in that manner. "We hold that a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen". As a recognition and honor, at the end of the Civil War, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, and the 33rd Colored Regiment were mustered out at the Battery Wagner site of the mass burial of the 54th Massachusetts.
More recently, the story of the unit was depicted in the 1989 Academy Award winning film Glory starring Matthew Broderick as Shaw, Denzel Washington as Private Tripp, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, and Andre Braugher. The film re-established the now-popular image of the combat role African-Americans played in the Civil War, and the unit, often represented in historical battle reenactments, now has the nickname The Glory Regiment.
Years after the film was made, it came to light that the word Glory was used by one of the men of the regiment. First Sergeant Robert John Simmons, of B Company, was a twenty-six year old Bermudian clerk, probably from St. George's, believed to have joined the 54th on 12 March, 1863(many Black and White Bermudians fought for the Union, mostly in the US Navy. Many also profiteered from the war by smuggling arms to the South.) Simmons was introduced to Frances George Shaw, father of Col. Shaw, by William Wells Brown, who described him as "a young man of more than ordinary abilities who had learned the science of war in the British Army". In his book, The Negro in the American Rebellion, Brown said that "Frances George Shaw remarked at the time that Simmons would make a 'valuable soldier'. Col. Shaw also had a high opinion of him". Sgt. Simmons was mentioned in an 1863 article of the Weekly Columbus Enquirer, which described him as "a brave man and of good education. He was wounded and captured. Taken to Charleston, his bearing impressed even his captors. After suffering amputation of the arm, he died there." The newspaper also described him as saying that he fought "for glory": One of the negroes is a remarkably sprightly fellow from Bermuda where he was educated as a soldier. His position is that of an Orderly Sergeant, but he has lost an arm, and probably one leg will go.
A third of the `glory' for which he says he came to fight, being thus amputated, he will in the future be a wiser man. The others are a mongrel set of trash and very fair representatives of the common type of free Northern negro."
Simmons, who would be specially mentioned by Shaw's successor, Col. Hallowell, and who had been awarded a private medal, died in August 1863, following the attack on Fort Wagner.