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54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment

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The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
March 13, 1863 – August 4, 1865
Notable: Military Regiment
Era: American Civil War

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Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, it had been illegal for Black people to serve in the United States Army. Following emancipation, there was a push for Black people to be able to enlist. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment became the second Black regiment to be created during the American Civil War.

The regiment was a part of the Union Army and was formed at Camp Meigs in what is now Hyde Park, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. At the time, Boston had a small Black population but recruits came to join the regiment from other free states, slave states, Canada, and the Caribbean.

By the time the regiment headed off for three months of training there were 1,007 Black soldiers. All of the infantrymen, sergeants, and corporals were Black men but none were allowed to serve as officers.

In addition, all soldiers had been promised $13 per month. But, the Black men of the 54th Regiment were paid only $10, out of which $3 was withheld to pay for their clothing. Meanwhile, the White soldiers were paid the promised $13 per month and no fees were withheld for clothing. The men of the 54th refused the unequal pay in protest but continued to fight. Many of the men served for 18 months without pay until Congress intervened and rectified the situation.

The 54th was deployed to the South where Jefferson Davis had declared that enlisted Black men who were captured would be enslaved or executed. When the regiment arrived in South Carolina, they were initially relegated to manual labor and participating in raids of abandoned towns.

The first fighting action in which the 54th participated was a skirmish on James Island where they fought off the Confederates in a ploy to divert attention from Fort Wagner. A few days later, the 54th Regiment led what became the famed attack on Fort Wagner during which it suffered heavy casualties. Other Union regiments took up the fight but were also unable to take the fort.

Despite its heavy losses, the 54th Massachusetts continued to fight until the end of the Civil War. Its bravery in battle led to more Black men enlisting and thus the creation of additional Black regiments. Sergeant William Harvey Carney later became the first Black person to receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery in retrieving and carrying the U.S. flag after the flag bearer was killed.

A memorial to the 54th Regiment was erected on the Boston Common in 1897 and is now part of the Boston Black Heritage Trail. The sculpture prominently features the 54th’s colonel but the marching soldiers are anonymous. The movie “Glory” immortalized the story of the 54th but also primarily focused on the regiment’s colonel while all of the Black soldiers are fictional despite photos and information about individual soldiers being available.

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