The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was created by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew in response to Abraham Lincoln’s call for Black regiments to be raised following the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Governor placed Robert Gould Shaw, the son of one of the affluent abolitionists, in command of this regiment in 1863. What makes the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry significant in historical reflections was the fact that it offered Black soldiers an opportunity to prove their capability.
For abolitionists Frederick Douglass, it was another victory for the black race to chalk another feat in its fight against racial inequality and demand for diversity, according to the Bill of Rights Institute. Douglass was instrumental in the recruitment of volunteers for the regiment which included his two sons.
Many of the Black soldiers were sourced mainly from New York, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Boston, and many other areas of the North. Why black participation was important was that despite African-American soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, racial discrimination in the North prohibited them from fighting America’s Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was seen as a window for African-American soldiers to prove their mettle. However, when they were enlisted, instead of being on the battlefield, many were used for menial jobs. In that regard, they were remunerated as laborers instead of soldiers.
Some also were engaged in ancillary works such as guarding bridges and supply trains and rescuing wounded soldiers from the battlefield. The casualty rate among the black regiment rose as a result of illness and strenuous labor work.
Historians say the black soldiers did raise concerns over blatant racism and the inequalities in payment of their remunerations during their enlistment. The white soldiers were paid $13 per month while the African Americans were given $10. They were told the $3 had been reserved to pay for their clothing. This only changed after Congress assented to a bill that demanded everyone to be paid equally irrespective of their race.
Some members of the 54th regiment did fight in combat. They undertook some heroic exploits that earned them respect among other peers. They managed to launch a military expedition against the Confederate Battery Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina.
They suffered some casualties from the enemy lines that shot at them within 200 yards of the fort. But they held the fort for an hour before being forced back. One of the notable casualties on that fateful day was the son of Douglass, Lewis Douglass. He was seriously wounded in combat but he survived.
Out of the 600 volunteers of the 54th Massachusetts who were engaged, 272 either lost their lives, were wounded or captured including Colonel Shaw, whose remains have never been found to date. The Confederates lost 174 men out of 1,700.
The 54th Massachusetts also distinguished themselves in the Battle of Olustee, Florida on February 20, 1864, as well as other battles.