54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment

With lineage dating back to the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment (Selected Honor Guard), preserves the history of the Massachusetts National Guard and renders appropriate military honors at state functions and at funeral services for veterans who have served in the military forces of the United States.

While African-American Soldiers had previously served in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first African-American regiment organized during the Civil War.

In January 1863, Secretary of War Stanton finally gave John A. Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, authorization to form regiments that could “include persons of African descent. . .” The governor had long been an advocate of raising black regiments from the free black population. Like most abolitionists, he felt the surest path to citizenship for black Americans was for them to be allowed to fight and die for their freedom and their country.

Andrew chose the white officers for the new black regiment from wealthy families prominent in the abolition movement in his state. These families could also be counted on to help finance the enlistment and outfitting of the troops. He solicited the aid of Frederick Douglass and other well known black abolitionists in attracting member of the black population for the new regiment. In fact, two of Douglass’ sons joined the regiment. Given the considerable opposition in the North to the idea of making Soldiers of blacks, the new regiment was seen as a good test of the fitness of black men as Soldiers and citizens. Supporters of the regiments spared no expense in the effort to prove that blacks were equal to the test.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the 25 year-old son of very wealthy abolitionist parents, was chosen to command. On May 28, 1863 the well equipped and drilled 54th paraded through the streets of Boston and then boarded ships bound for the coast of South Carolina. Their first conflict with Confederate Soldiers came on July 16, when the regiment repelled an attack on James Island. But on July 18 came the supreme test of the courage and valor of the black Soldiers; they were chosen to lead the assault on Battery Wagner, a Confederate fort on Morris Island at Charleston. In addressing his Soldiers before leading them in charge across the beach, Col.Shaw said, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

During its attack on Battery Wagner, nearly half the regiment was killed, wounded or captured. For his bravery in the battle, Sgt. William H. Carney became the first African-American to earn the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.

The 54th had proved its mettle in battle through the gallantry and steadfastness of its men and, as a result, President Lincoln ordered the recruitment of some 180,000 more African-American Soldiers into the Union Army. The unit was mustered out service after the Civil War, and its colors retired.

More than a century after the war the 54th 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. 

The Massachusetts National Guard’s Honor Guard was recently re-designated as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment (Selected Honor Guard) in a ceremony at the State House in Boston presided over the Governor of Massachusetts. In another historic moment for the Massachusetts National Guard, the newly organized and re-designated regiment marched, along with 54th Regiment re-enactors, in the Presidential inaugural parade, Jan. 20, 2009.