May 28, 1863 – African-American Regiment 54th Massachusetts Infantry Leaves Boston to Fight the Civil War in South Carolina

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be organized in the North during the Civil War. According to an online Massachusetts history site:

Prior to 1863, no concerted effort was made to recruit black troops as Union soldiers. The adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862 provided the impetus for the use of free black men as soldiers and, at a time when state governors were responsible for the raising of regiments for federal service, Massachusetts was the first to respond with the formation of the Fifty-fourth Regiment.”

Colonel Robert Shaw, born into a prominent Boston abolitionist family, was selected as the head of the infantry and organized the group made of freed or escaped slaves.

On this day in history, after the presentation of the unit’s colors by the governor and a parade through the streets of Boston, the regiment then departed Boston on a transport ship for the coast of South Carolina.

The infantry were only paid $10 a week while white soldiers received $13 a week. At Colonel Shaw’s urging, they protested the disparity but were not paid equal wages until towards the end of the war.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

The African-American soldiers lost an assault at Fort Wagner (located on Morris Island in the Charleston Harbor, South Carolina) in July 1863, where Shaw was killed. As battlefields.org reports:

When the Federal forces were within 150 yards of the fort, Taliaferro [leader of the Confederate forces] instructed his soldiers to fire. As he crested the flaming parapet, Shaw waved his sword, shouted ‘Forward, 54th!’ and then pitched headlong into the sand with three fatal wounds.”

Although Union forces were not able to take and hold the fort at that time, the 54th was widely acclaimed for its valor during the battle. This 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.

Leadership of the 54th was taken over after Shaw’s death by the Quaker abolitionist Edward Needles Hallowell. Hallowell’s brother Norwood, who originally served as Shaw’s second in the 54th, took command of the 55th Massachusetts, another all-black regiment.

The 54th and Hallowell continued to serve with distinction during the war.

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