A Look at the Massachusetts 54th All African American Unit
Who were the Massachusetts 54th?
The Massachusetts 54th were a group of free African American soldiers lead by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Some of these volunteer soldiers were rich and educated (such as Shaw's friend Thomas Searles) and some were runaway slaves. Lincoln needed this group of men because they were some of the only people that voluntarily wanted to fight.
Training of the Massachusetts 54th:
Training was difficult for all the men. For the uneducated, it was learning simple things like left and right in order to march. For the rich and educated, adjusting to the life style of a soldier was a struggle. They worked sun up to sun down, and got free time in the evenings. They learned skills such as preparing and firing a gun, which was extremely hard to do quickly. They were harshly trained but only so that they could become structured and experienced soldiers.
These African Americans had volunteered to fight as soldiers, but often didn't get to because biased opinions about their race. Many times, they would train but only get to do manual labor such as cutting wood to build roads. They didn't get privileges like shoes and other necessities as easily. They were also payed lower wages then white soldiers.
Arrival in South Carolina:
For most of the men, returning to the south was very exciting. They were very proud to show off their acheivments of becoming Union soldiers. Some of the guys that were runaway slaves were very anxious to return to encourage other slaves to do what they did.
The 1st Assignment in South Carolina:
The African American Soldiers lead by Shaw were told they were going to get "supplies" from a small town in Georgia. While they were there Colonel James Montgomery ordered Shaw to tell his troops to burn down the town, or he threatened to demote him from his position as Colonel. Shaw did, and of course his men obeyed without question because of the way they had been trained.
No Fighting Just Manual labor for the Massachusetts 54th:
Because of biased opinion based on their race, African American soldiers were mainly given the job to cut wood. This would later be used to build roads. This was the opposite of what the soldiers had signed up for, and they fealt as if they were being used for slave work.
1st Battle on James Island:
The men were excited to fight their first battle. Many people were shot and stabbed, including Thomas Searles. The Confederates retreated and ran, leaving Colonel Shaw with his first victory. Forty-two people total got injured or died.
Massachusetts 54th Volunteers for the Attack on Fort Wagner:
Colonel Shaw volunteered his troops for the attack on Fort Wagner because he knew they would be willing to take on the challenge. It was basically a suicide mission. Not many people were expected to make it inside the fort. It was going to be very tough, many causualties were going to happen.
The attack on Fort Wagner:
Colonel Shaw joined his group of soldiers to fight. Fort Wagner is set in an area surrounded by sand which is very hard to run in. Many people die while running from being shot or bombed. They underestimated the amount of Confederates in the fort by a lot. They attempt to climb up the sand walls of the fort to get in, not many succeed.
Fort Wagner was a suicide mission in an attempt for the south to use up most of their ammo. The Confederates ended up winning, and all the dead Union soldiers (including Colonel Shaw) were rolled into a ditch, as a "mass grave".