Civil War Slave Soldiers

Veteran: Massachusetts 54th Regiment Soldier
Artist / Writer: Ron Travisano

After the Civil War broke out, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass argued that the enlistment of black soldiers would help the North win the war and would be a huge step in the fight for equal rights: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket,” Douglass said, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of the first official black units in the U.S. armed forces. Their courageous assault on Fort Wagner played a key role in bringing about an end to slavery.

Early in February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first official call for black soldiers. More than 1,000 men responded. They formed the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first black regiment to be raised in the North. Many of the 54th soldiers did not even come from Massachusetts: one-quarter came from slave states, and some came from as far away as Canada and the Caribbean. To lead the 54th Massachusetts, Governor Andrew chose a young white officer named Robert Gould Shaw.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts stormed Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston, in South Carolina. It was the first time in the Civil War that black troops led an infantry attack. Unfortunately, the 600 men of the 54th were outgunned and outnumbered: 1,700 Confederate soldiers waited inside the fort, ready for battle. Almost half of the charging Union soldiers, including Colonel Shaw, were killed.