The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was organized in early 1863 by Robert Gould Shaw, twenty-six year old member of a prominent Boston abolitionist family. Shaw had earlier served in the Seventh New York National Guard and the Second Massachusetts Infantry, and was appointed colonel of the Fifty-fourth in February 1863 by Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew.
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 was Lewis N. Douglass, son 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 June 3, 1863. The regiment earned its greatest fame on July 18, 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 over 250 men of the regiment became casualties. Shaw, the regiment's young colonel, died on the crest of the enemy parapet, shouting, "Forward, Fifty- fourth!"
That heroic charge, coupled with 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 numbered 510 officers and men at the opening of the Florida Campaign, and its new commander was Edward N. Hallowell, a twenty-seven year old merchant from Medford, Massachusetts. Anxious to avenge the Battery Wagner repulse, the Fifty- fourth was the best black regiment available to General Seymour, the Union commander.
Along with the First North Carolina Colored Infantry, the Fifty-fourth entered the fighting late in the day at Olustee, and helped save the Union army from complete disaster. The Fifty-fourth marched into battle yelling, "Three cheers for Massachusetts and seven dollars a month." The latter referred to the difference in pay between white and colored Union infantry, long a sore point with colored troops. Congress had just passed a bill correcting this and giving colored troops equal pay. However, word of the bill would not reach these troops until after the battle of Olustee. The regiment lost eighty-six men in the battle, the lowest number of the three black regiments present. 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 before Charleston and Savannah. More than a century after the war the Fifty-fourth 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.
To better show how the 54th felt underfire, here is a letter home from Orderly Sergeant W.N. Collins of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry accounting Plotter's Raid.
"Well, we arrived at Georgetown, S.C., on the 3Ist (March 1865), and went into camp. On the 1st of April we started upon our errand through the State, and had nothing to molest us for three days. We saw nothing of the Johnnies, and on Friday the 8th of April, at Epp's Ferry, Cos. H and A were detached from the regiment to go and destroy the said Ferry. Myself, one corporal and fifteen privates were in the advance. On we went, neither hearing nor seeing any thing in particular. After advancing about two miles, and wading through water and mud, we spied a Johnny sitting...