The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry was established in early 1863 under the direction of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The unit was the first all-black Union regiment of the Civil War.
Recruits came not only from Massachusetts, but also from New York, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and even Canada. One of the big detriments to recruiting was the threat from the South that any black Union soldier captured would be sold into slavery.
Frederick Douglass believed black service in the Union cause would signal freedom from slavery. Two of his sons fought with the 54th Mass.
Early on the regiment was cited for bravery as they provided support to troops being attacked on James Island. The troop's greatest recognition came from a fight fought in July 1863 as it assaulted Confederate positions at Battery Wagner, a fortification which guarded the strategic harbor of Charleston. The 54th was hit with incessant shelling but they would not be turned back. Of 600 men, 281 were killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner. Their young commander was killed leading the attack. Despite their initial defeat, their courageous acts made the regiment a household name throughout the North. Later, the 54th helped take the fort only for the fort to later be abandoned by the Union.
One of their number became the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor. William H. Carney's citation gives us some of the action: "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."
Battery Wagner was not the only action for which the 54th earned respect. The regiment joined the 35th United States Colored Troops to help save Union forces from disaster in Olustee, Florida. The regiment lost another 86 men during the battle. However, the black regiments received some good news after the battle. The U.S. Congress finally corrected the longstanding inequity in pay between black and white troops bringing black pay levels equal to white pay levels.