54th Massachussetts Regiment

The First African American Regiment of the Civil War

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To celebrate the courage and sacrifices of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and its leader Robert Gould Shaw, as the first African American regiment in the Civil War, Augustus Saint-Gaudens created the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial.

Summary

John A. Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, was given permission to organize African American regiments in January 1863. John Andrew chose Robert Gould Shaw, the son of wealthy, white abolitionists, to lead the first African American regiment. This regiment was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Even though the 54th Regiment was considered an African American regiment, it still had white leaders. Shaw began to recruit soldiers in February 1863. Frederick Douglass was asked to help attract black soldiers and interest them in joining this regiment.The 54th Regiment accepted free blacks from the South, North and Canada. By May 1863, over 1,000 soldiers had been recruited. Any overflow of the 54th Regiment created the 55th Regiment. African Americans wanted to fight to prove they were loyal and to help free fellow African Americans from slavery. African Americans were paid less then white soldiers. Black Regiments were new to the Civil War, so this regiment was given extra attention and focus. The 54th Regiment's performance would decide if blacks would continue to fight in the Civil War.


On May 28, 1863, the 54th Regiment paraded down Beacon Street in Boston on their way to head South for battle. The 54th Regiment's first battle was the Battle on James Island on July 16th, 1863. The regiment was successful in stopping any Confederate advance but lost 42 men in the process. By July 18th, the 54th Regiment had moved on to Fort Wagner on Morris Island, SC. At the Battle of Fort Wagner, the 54th Regiment suffered many losses including Colonel Shaw. Even though the 54th Regiment was not successful in this battle, it proved that the blacks were loyal and willing to fight. The 54th Regiment continued to fight in other battles such as the Battle of Olustee and the Battle of Honey Hill. The 54th Regiment ended in 1865. Today the 54th Regiment is remembered for their courage by the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Massachusetts.

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Fliers were passed out to promote African Americans to join the war.

Key Points

  • First African American regiment in the Union
  • Had white leaders
  • Fought at Fort Wagner
  • Blacks were paid less than whites
  • Proved that African American regiments were loyal to the Union and could fight
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The 54th Regiment stormed Fort Wagner with great confidence.

Connections to Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, a famous black abolitionist was asked to help attract more soldiers to join the 54th Regiment. Two sons of Douglass, Lewis and Charles Douglass, joined the 54th Regiment. Frederick Douglass helped make the 54th Massachusetts Regiment popular to the blacks who were eligible to fight.
Civil War: 54th Regiment
African Americans fought to prove that the were loyal and brave to their country and to fight for the freedom of their fellow African Americans.

The Irony

One of the reasons the Civil War was fought was to end slavery because all men were equal, including African Americans. Even though many Northerners believed African Americans should have more rights than they did, they were still skeptical as to whether African Americans should be allowed to fight in a "white man's war." African Americans were also paid less. While whites were busy fighting a war to free blacks from slavery and give them more rights, they were still treating blacks unfairly.

Important Men Who Fought In the 54th Regiment