The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was organized in March 1863 at Camp Meigs, Readville, Massachusetts by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, twenty-six year old member of a prominent Boston abolitionist family. In February 1863, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew appointed Shaw as colonel of the 54th. Shaw served earlier in the Seventh New York National Guard and the Second Massachusetts Infantry and had combat experience.
As one of the first black units organized in the northern states, the Fifty-fourth was the object of great interest and curiosity, and its performance would be considered an important indication of the possibilities surrounding the use of blacks in combat. The regiment was composed primarily of free blacks from throughout the north, particularly Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Amongst its recruits were
Lewis N. Douglass and Charles Douglass, sons of the famous ex-slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
After a period of recruiting and training, the unit proceeded to the Department of the South, arriving at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on 3 June 1863. Soon after, it saw its first action at James Island. The regiment earned its greatest fame on 18 July 1863, when it led the unsuccessful and controversial assault on the Confederate positions at Battery Wagner. In this desperate attack, the Fifty-fourth was placed in the vanguard and 281 men of the regiment became casualties (54 were killed or fatally wounded and another 48 were never accounted for). Robert Shaw, the regiment's young colonel, died on the crest of the enemy parapet, shouting, "Forward, Fifty-fourth!"
It was also on the parapet of the battery that Sergeant William H. Carney, Company C, risked his life in an action for which he received the Medal of Honor. His award citation reads in part:
"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."
That heroic charge, coupled with Colonel Shaw's death, made the regiment a household name throughout the north, and helped spur black recruiting. For the remainder of 1863, the unit participated in siege operations around Charleston, before boarding transports for Florida early in February 1864. The regiment's new commander was Colonel Edward N. Hallowell, previously the regiment's lieutenant colonel and now promoted. Hallowell was a twenty-seven year old merchant from Medford, Massachusetts, who had previously served with the 20th Massachusetts before assignment to the 54th as it was organizing.
Anxious to avenge the Battery Wagner repulse, the Fifty-fourth was the best black regiment available to General Seymour, the Union commander of the Florida Expedition. However, only 13 officers and 497 enlisted men from companies B, C, D, F, G, H, I and K were present at Olustee, two other companies, A and E, having been detailed for guard duty at Barbers Plantation.
The 54th Massachustetts, as well as the 35th United States Colored Troops, served as the rearguard for the Union Army and possibly prevented its destruction.
After Olustee, the Fifty-fourth was not sent to participate in the bloody Virginia campaigns of 1864-1865. Instead, it remained in the Department of the South, fighting in a number of actions, including the battles of of Honey Hill and Boykin's Mill before Charleston and Savannah.
It was mustered out of the army in August 1865.
"There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & eternity for doing so." - Abraham Lincoln, April 19, 1864 (Collected Works 7: 506-507)
More than a century after the war, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts remains the most famous black regiment of the war, due largely to the popularity of the movie Glory, which recounts the story of the regiment prior to and including the attack on Battery Wagner.
Colonel Hallowell's Official Report of the Battle
Information on the U.S.C.T. Battalion for 150th Olustee - (usctbattalion.com/)
Letters from Members of the 54th Masachusetts:
Photographs of Members of the 54th Massachusetts:
External Web sites related to the Battle of Olustee
Books on the 54th
Co. B - Washington, D.C.
Co. I - Charleston, S.C.
Union Order of Battle
Battle of Olustee home page