Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - November 20, 2019

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
The 54th Massachusetts distinguished itself at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, in 1864. Wikimedia

24. The 54th Massachusetts returned to South Carolina after the Florida expedition

In 1864 the 54th returned to operations in and around Charleston Harbor. In November, 1864, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments were part of an operation to sever the Charleston and Savannah Railroad in support of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea. At Honey Hill the Union troops encountered an entrenched Confederate force defending the railroad and several attacks proved that the Confederate position was too strong to be carried. Both the 54th and 55th were engaged in the fighting, which proved to be a defensive Confederate victory. The 54th withdrew to its position at Hilton Head.

In April 1865, the 54th saw its last action of the war several days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and just four days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The 54th engaged with Confederate troops, again in fortified positions near the town of Boykin, South Carolina. The battle, which was a sharply contested skirmish, ended when the 54th drove the Confederates from their position. Of the fifteen casualties sustained by the regiment in the action two were fatalities, including Lieutenant E. L. Stevens, the last Union officer to lose his life in the Civil War.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
Recruitment of soldiers of African descent expanded as the war went on, following the distinction earned by several units. Wikimedia

25. The 54th was the most famous of the black units of the Civil War

Because of the debacle at Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts became the most well-known of the black regiments formed during the American Civil War, a distinction which it retains. After the war was over the regiment was mustered out in South Carolina, and most men returned to their homes before the war. The bodies of the men killed at Fort Wagner were disinterred and moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, where they were reinterred with full honors, with the gravesite marked as Unknown. Presumably, that is where Robert Gould Shaw rests today, still with the troops he commanded.

By the end of the Civil War, entirely segregated black units numbered over 160 in the Union army, and nearly 180,000 black Americans served in them. Many others served in support roles, as laborers, blacksmiths and armorers, cooks and ambulance drivers, and as gravediggers. They served in the Navy as well, on ships which were not segregated, in a variety of naval disciplines. In 1863, while at Vicksburg, U. S. Grant praised the performance and discipline of the black troops under his command, stating that it was easier to enforce discipline on them than on white troops, firmly refuting the beliefs which opponents to their use had long stated.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“‘One Gallant Rush’: Robert Gould Shaw and his Brave Black Regiment”. Peter Burchard. 1965

“Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment”. Clinton Cox. 1991

“Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Robert Gould Shaw. Russell Duncan ed. 1999

“Civil War Boston”. Thomas O’Connor. 1997

“54th Regiment!”. Entry, Massachusetts Historical Society. Online

“Montgomery’s Raids in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina”. William Lee Apthorp, Lt. Col, United States Colored Infantry. June, 1864. Online

“History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863 – 1865”. Luis Emilio. 1894

“Fort Wagner”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Engineer and artillery operations against the defenses of Charleston harbor in 1863”. Quincy Adams Gillmore. 1865

“The Old Steam Navy: The Ironclads, 1842 – 1885”. Donald L. Canney. 1993

“Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry”. Brian C. Pohanka, HistoryNet. Online

“Second Battle of Fort Wagner”. Simon Adams, Encyclopedia Britannica. Online

“Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders”. Ezra J. Warner. 1959

“Confederate Florida: The Road to Olustee”. William H. Nulty. 1990

“54th Massachusetts Regiment”. Article, National Park Service. Online

“The U. S. Colored Troops in the Civil War”. Mark L. Bradley, Center of Military History, United States Army. 2015. Online