The 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the most famous African-American regiment of the war, leaves Boston for combat in the South. For the first two years of the war, President Abraham Lincoln resisted the use of black troops despite the pleas of men such as Frederick Douglass, who argued that no one had more to fight for than African Americans. Lincoln finally endorsed, albeit timidly, the introduction of blacks for service in the military in the Emancipation Proclamation. On May 22, 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops to recruit and assemble black regiments. Many blacks, often freed or escaped slaves, joined the military and found themselves usually under white leadership. Ninety percent of all officers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were white.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the idealistic scion of an abolitionist family, headed the 54th. Shaw was a veteran of the 2nd Massachusetts infantry and saw action in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley and Antietam campaigns. After being selected by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew to organize and lead the 54th, Shaw carefully selected the most physically fit soldiers and white officers with established antislavery views. The regiment included two of Frederick Douglass’s sons and the grandson of Sojourner Truth.
On May 28, 1863, the new regiment marched onto a steamer and set sail for Port Royal, South Carolina. The unit saw action right away, taking part in a raid into Georgia and withstanding a Confederate attack near Charleston, South Carolina. On July 18, 1863, Shaw led a bold but doomed attack against Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in which he was killed and the 54th suffered heavy casualties.
The story of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts was immortalized in the critically acclaimed 1990 movie Glory, starring Mathew Broderick, Denzell Washington, and Morgan Freeman.