The following history is taken, largely, from Emilio's account of the regiment.
The United States Army first began to arm African-Americans as soldiers in 1862. The Louisiana Native Guards were organized in September, and the First South Carolina in October. The next black regiment to be raised was the First Kansas Colored, followed by the fifty-fourth Massachusetts. Governor John Andrew strongly supported the enlistment of African-Americans, and, in 1863, was authorized to do so by the Secretary of War. Governor Andrew immediately began to organize his regiment, his first action being to secure Robert G. Shaw for commanding officer, which he did, in part, in this letter to Shaw's father. The letter also outlines Andrew's wishes and plans for the new regiment. Shaw accepted Andrew's offer.
Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston on October 10, 1837. His parents were Francis Shaw and Sarah Blake Sturgis. Robert Shaw attended Harvard and served with the Seventh New York National Guard. He was commissioned a second lieutenant with the Second Massachusetts Infantry. On May 2, 1863, he married Miss Haggerty of New York City.
Emilio writes, "At the time a strong prejudice existed against arming the blacks and those who dared to command them. The sentiment of the country and of the army was opposed to the measure. It was asserted that they would not fight, that their employment would prolong the war, and that the white troops would refuse to serve with them" (6). The Confederate government was strongly opposed to the arming of African-American soldiers.
Recruiting of soldiers to fill the new regiment began in earnest in early 1863. John Appleton was the senior recruiting officer. He placed an advertisement in the Boston Journal, requesting volunteers. Respondents became Company A. Recruiting efforts were also exerted in Philadelphia, New Bedford, Springfield, and Connecticut. However, the majority of men who volunteered for the Massachusetts 54th and 55th were privately contacted by various prominent white men such as Colonel Shaw's father.
The regiment first went to camp at Camp Meigs, in Reidville, Massachusetts for initial training. Emilio describes the approximate 400 men, as of April 1, thus:
"Only a small proportion had been slaves. There were a large number of comparatively light-complexioned men. In stature they reached the average of white volunteers. Compared with the material of contraband regiments, they were lighter, taller, of more regular features. There were men enough found amply qualified to more than supply all requirements for warrant officers and clerks." (21)
In May, the regiment departed for South Carolina, per the request of General David Hunter, commander of the Department of the South. The regiment was first stationed in the Sea Island sector where troops served on missions such as the storming of Fort Wagner, causing President Lincoln to issue a statement protecting the African-American soldiers when prisoners-of-war. It was also during this siege that Colonel Shaw died. One account, from a Confederate soldier, describes the less than reverent manner in which Colonel Shaw's body was treated. The regiment also suffered considerable loss throughout the ranks.
In addition to battles such as the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the regiment was also fighting their own government, which was falling far short on their promised pay of the soldiers. The men were offered a little more than half of the promised $13 per month, and this offer they refused. They continued to serve their country. A letter from a MA 54th soldier was quoted in the Boston Journal, on the matter of equal pay discusses the feelings of the troops. Their interest in the matter was not so much a concern for money as it was for principle.
The regiment was also snubbed on the battlefield. Emilio describes the actions of some towards his regiment:
"During the time the Fifty-fourth had served with white troops a few officers and men manifested their dislike to the black regiment in various ways. Sometimes white sentinels would pretend not to see the approach of our officers, to avoid rendering the proper salute. Occasionally officers in charge of armed parties failed to give the marching salute to similar parties of the Fifty-fourth. In all such cases reports were made of the discourtesy. The following instance of preference given to white troops, when on joint duty with blacks, occurred. Captain Emilio, with two hundred and fifty men and several officers, reported for grand-guard duty, and as the first on the ground, was entitled to the right of all others. This position, despite protest, was denied him by Maj. Michael Schmitt, Independent New York Battalion. When the tour of duty was completed, a report was made of the affair and forwarded to post headquarters. The discrimination did not occur again. By persistent and firm assertion of the rights of the men on the part of all the Fifty-fourth officers, a discontinuance of these and other discourtesies was at last obtained." (147)
From Charleston, the Fifty-fourth went to Hilton Head, from which they departed in the company of several other regiments, for Florida where they were engaged in the Battle of Olustree.
The month following Olustree, in March of 1864, a bill was presented to Congress in an effort to equalize the pay to soldiers. This bill passed the Senate on March 10 and was read aloud to every company in the Massachusetts 54th. The Regiment returned to the Carolina low country. In September the troops were finally paid. It was an occasion of great celebration, as one officer writes.
The Fifty-fourth assisted Sherman in his "March to the Sea" and destruction of the railroads. It traveled to Savannah, and later participated in Potter's Raid. In September, 1865, the regiment returned to Boston where troops received a hero's welcome. They disbanded.