Black History Month: 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment
February 25, 2013
In February 1863, the United States raised its first Army regiment of black Soldiers during the Civil War. Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew received approval from U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton Jan. 15, 1863, to recruit "persons of African descent, organized into special corps" to fight for the Union cause.
Andrew hoped the new unit, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, would become a model for future regiments, whose success would confirm the capacity of blacks for military service.
The 54th Massachusetts, under the command of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, trained at Camp Meigs in Readville in the Hyde Park section of present-day Boston. Recruits arrived from 24 states -- 15 Union, five Confederate and all four border states. Their professions included farmers, laborers and skilled tradesmen.
On May 28, Andrew presented the regiment its colors. The 1,007 enlisted men and 37 white officers marched through Boston and embarked on the transport ship De Molay, destined for Beaufort, S.C.
On July 16, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts saw its first action as part of a diversionary attack on James Island, across the Ashley River from Charleston, S.C. The first casualties totaled 45 men.
Two days later, 600 men of the Regiment led a brigade-sized assault on Fort Wagner, located on Morris Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. The fort, constructed with a ditch and earthworks, was located on a thin spit of land, where the only approach was bordered by the ocean and a marsh.
The 54th had no choice but to charge straight ahead into the fortifications. The attack was gallant, but disastrous. The unit held part of the fort, but Confederate counterattacks forced the men in blue to retreat, suffering 116 killed in action, including its commander, Shaw, and 156 wounded or captured. The unit gained recognition for its valor and showed that black Soldiers fought hard.
One enlisted Soldier, Sgt. William Harvey Carney, was the first black recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for rallying the troops and saving the regimental colors.
The medal was finally awarded May 23, 1900. The citation read, "When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back, he brought off the flag under a fierce fire, in which he was twice severely wounded."
Carney died in 1908.