The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry was the first Northern black volunteer regiment enlisted to fight in the Civil War. Its accomplished combat record led to the general recruitment of African-Americans as soldiers. They ultimately comprised ten percent of Union Army and Navy. The Fifty-fourth’s successful campaign for equal pay also signaled a move toward racial justice in the military.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, and as the demand for Northern recruits outgrew the supply, President Abraham Lincoln agreed to enroll African-Americans in the Union army. At the start of 1863, Massachusetts’ abolitionist governor John A. Andrew received the War Department’s consent to form a regiment of free Northern blacks. Prominent abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw, who at the time was 25, accepted the position of colonel of the Fifty-fourth, believing that the regiment presented an opportunity to vindicate anti-slavery ideals. By May of 1863, 1,007 black men had enlisted in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts.
Typically, individual states recruited and trained local Civil War regiments which then joined the Federal forces. In the Fifty-fourth, however, only 113 men (13%) hailed from Massachusetts. The new regiment represented a broad geographical spectrum, including soldiers from 15 Northern states, four border states, five Confederate states, Canada, and the West Indies. At least 30 were former slaves. In addition to the 1,007 black infantrymen, 37 white officers served in the regiment. While African-Americans were not permitted to serve as officers, all the sergeants and corporals were black, providing a crucial link between the enlisted men and their officers.
Colonel Shaw received his orders in May; the Fifty-fourth was to sail to Beaufort, South Carolina. After an emotional march on Boston Common on May 28, 1963, the Fifty-fourth sailed south. Assaulting James Island, the Fifty-fourth soon distinguished itself in combat. Shortly thereafter, Shaw led the renewed attack on the Confederate stronghold