The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. 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.
The formation of the regiment was a matter of controversy and public attention from its inception. Questions were raised as to the black man’s ability to fight in the “white man’s war.” Although Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew believed that black men were capable of leadership, others felt that commissioning blacks as officers was simply too controversial; Andrew needed all the support he could get. The commissioned officers, then, were white and the enlisted men black. Any black officers up to the rank of lieutenant were non-commissioned and reached their positions by moving up through the ranks. On 28 May 1863, upon the presentation of the unit’s colors by the governor and a parade through the streets of Boston, spectators lined the streets with the hopes of viewing this experimental unit. The regiment then departed Boston on the transport De Molay for the coast of South Carolina.
All but one of the portraits below (the lithograph of Robert Gould Shaw) were collected by Capt. Luis F. Emilio, commander of Company E of the regiment. The photographic portraits date from circa 1860 to 1880 and include tintypes, one ambrotype, and albumen photographs depicting both African-American members of the regiment, as well as white officers. The entire collection of 108 photographs is described in a collection guide with links to digitized images,54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment photographs (Photo. Coll. 72). Forty-three additional images of the volunteers can be found in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment carte de visite album (Photo. Coll. 103).
Recruiting and Enlisting Soldiers
By the middle of February 1863, recruiting for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment was underway. Newspaper advertisements and recruiting posters (see below) encouraged black men to enlist. Twenty-five men responded promptly, and by the end of the first week of enlistments seventy-two recruits were present at Camp Meigs in Readville (now West Roxbury), Massachusetts. However, more soldiers were needed and recruiters turned their attention to states throughout the North and South and into Canada to locate enough eligible black men to fill the regiment. By 14 May 1863, the regiment was comprised of 1000 enlisted men, and a full complement of white officers. In May 1863, Captain John W. M. Appleton donated the Enlistment roll of Company A of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. The remaining recruits became the nucleus of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
On 16 July 1863, serving as a diversion for the intended attack on Morris Island, South Carolina, the Fifty-fourth Regiment saw its first action on James Island, losing forty-five men. On 18 July, after several days with little sleep, food or water, the regiment was instructed to lead the attack against Fort Wagner on Morris Island (see an 1863 watercolor of Morris Island from Fort Wagner by Henry Webber). In the disastrous assault led by Colonel Shaw, the 54th suffered very heavy losses, most notably the loss of their commander, and nearly half of the men present were killed, wounded, or missing. Despite this, the unit showed exceptional bravery and honor, never retreating as they waited for the reinforcements which would never arrive.
While the Fifty-fourth Regiment suffered heavy losses at Fort Wagner, there is no evidence that the unit was chosen because they were thought of simply as cannon fodder. When the news of the attack reached home, the unit which had been the target of so much attention, publicity, and skepticism finally earned the respect it deserved. Despite the defeat at Fort Wagner, the use of black soldiers in the 54th was viewed as a success and opened the way for numerous other black units in the Union Army for the remainder of the war.