July 18, 1863: The Bravery of the 54th Massachusetts

Freedom Center Voices

July 18, 1863: The Bravery of the 54th Massachusetts

When southern states began to secede from the Union in 1860, talk of civil war was prevalent throughout the country. For African Americans, this war was about one thing—bringing an end to slavery. Frederick Douglass and other prominent African Americans petitioned Congress and President Lincoln to allow African American men to enlist in the military. Douglass’ words and determination laid heavy in the mind of the President.

“A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it.  Only a moderate share of sagacity was needed to see that the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder.”

- Frederick Douglass, “Men of Color, To Arms!” March 21, 1863


Storming Fort Wagner. Print shows Union soldiers storming the walls of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, and engaging some Confederate soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. Source: Library of Congress.

Laying the Ground Work

The first step in recruiting African Americans was the Second Confiscation and Militia Act which gave Lincoln the authority “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion…in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.” This act formed a number of unofficial African American regiments in Louisiana, Kansas and South Carolina. However, it wasn’t until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863 that official African American regiments formed.

Forming The 54th Massachusetts

On January 26, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the official recruitment and formation of African American regiments. Shortly after, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew reached out to Boston’s African American and abolitionist communities to help with recruitment of soldiers to the Union Army. Excited by the news, these individuals worked tirelessly to recruit soldiers. Church sermons, public events, newspapers, posters and pamphlets were all used to promote recruitment. Frederick Douglass and Major Martin Robinson Delany also assisted with recruitment. Douglass’s two sons, Charles and Lewis, were some of the first to enlist.

Recruitment was so successful that over 1,000 men had volunteered by May 14, 1863. Volunteers came from all over the country, and even Canada and the Caribbean. This new regiment became the 54th Massachusetts, the second African American regiment of the United States Army. Roughly 25% of the volunteers were from southern states, many of them formerly enslaved.

Early Days

Trainings were done just outside of Boston at Camp Meigs, and the unit was commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw. Once training was complete, over 20,000 people (including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison) gathered at Boston Commons on May 28, 1863 to send them off to active duty. The crowds cheered as the soldiers boarded the ship De Molay that was destined for South Carolina.

After weeks of manual labor and engaging in a small fight with Confederate troops on James Island, Colonel Shaw requested that his troops have the opportunity to lead the next assault against Confederate troops. When the 54th arrived outside of Fort Wagner, South Carolina on the evening of July 18, 1863, Colonel Shaw got his wish. That evening he told his men:

“I want you to prove yourselves… The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

This was the moment they all had waited for. The opportunity to prove their valor—to fight for freedom.

View of Forts Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, evacuated by Confederates, September 6, 1863. Source: Library of Congress

The Assault at Fort Wagner

The 54th led the union assault. They advanced at dusk, bravely marching toward the Confederate line. When they got within 100 yards, Shaw gave the order to attack. Outgunned, the 54th was assaulted by a wall of bullets. Shaw witnessed the carnage and chaos, regrouped his men and led the charge over the outer wall of Ft. Wagner. Before the Colonel was shot and killed, his last words were, “Forward Fifty-Fourth!”

When the flag bearer was shot, Sergeant William H. Carney grabbed the flag before it could hit the ground. Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds, Carney carried the symbol of the Union to the base of the fort where he planted the flag in the sand. Carney later told his fellow soldiers:

"As quick as a thought, I threw away my gun, seized the colors, and made my way to the head of the column."

His heroic efforts earned him the Medal of Honor—the first black recipient of the award in United States history.

Photograph of Sergeant William H. Carney, circa 1864. He was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.

Photograph of Sergeant William H. Carney, circa 1864. He was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.


Although the 54th fought valiantly, they were eventually repelled by Confederate troops and the union forces failed to take Ft. Wagner. Approximately 280 soldiers from the 54th were either killed, wounded, captured or missing. Some of captured men were sold into slavery. Yet despite the loss, the bravery shown by the 54th Massachusetts at the charge of Fort Wagner proved that African American troops were valuable, effective soldiers. This would be remembered as one of the most famous battles of the Civil War—inspiring artwork, poetry and songs for generations to come.


James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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