For nearly two years, the Civil War was a whites-only affair. Although African Americans had fought with distinction in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, many in the North questioned the discipline and fighting capabilities of African Americans. President Abraham Lincoln, concerned about harming the morale of white soldiers and alienating slaveholding border states, initially resisted pleas to allow black combat troops in the Union Army. As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln eventually switched course, and his Emancipation Proclamation permitted the enlistment of African-American men.

Within days of the proclamation’s enactment on January 1, 1863, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew began recruitment of the first northern regiment of black soldiers—the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment. Andrew cast a wide net for soldiers. Recruitment posts opened from Boston to St. Louis, and men from 22 states heeded the call for “volunteers of African descent.” The regiment’s troops included former slaves, two sons of Frederick Douglass and a grandson of Sojourner Truth.

Massachusetts law specified that only white men could command a regiment, and Andrew sought officers “in those circles of educated antislavery society which, next to the colored race itself, have the greatest interest in this experiment.” The governor offered the unit command to Union officer Robert Gould Shaw, the only son of a wealthy Boston abolitionist family. Although only 25 years old, the Harvard-educated Shaw had been battle-tested at Antietam and served with distinction as captain of the elite 2nd Massachusetts Regiment. Although initially reluctant, Shaw arrived in Boston in February to accept his command.

Robert Gould Shaw
Robert Gould Shaw

After training through winter chill and spring showers, the regiment finally received its battle flags in a formal ceremony on May 18, 1863. Hundreds of black and white spectators ringed the parade ground on the outskirts of Boston as the sun sparkled off the polished buttons of the soldiers’ blue uniforms. As Andrew presented the 54th Regiment with the United States flag, he said, “Whenever its folds shall be unfurled, it will mark the path of glory.” The governor then handed the colonel a telegram with orders to report to South Carolina.

Within weeks, the 1,000 black soldiers and 30 white commissioned officers of the 54th Regiment were thrust into the Union assault on Charleston. On July 16, the regiment fought on Sol Legare Island and sustained more than 40 casualties. Two days later as the sunlight waned, the exhausted and hungry soldiers arrived on Morris Island, where the Union fleet had spent nearly the entire daytime hours pounding Confederate-held Fort Wagner. The prior week, the Union had sustained heavy losses in an attack on the beachhead fortification, and now Brigadier General George C. Strong wanted to try again.

He asked the 54th Regiment, the largest among the Union’s 5,000 soldiers on the island, to lead the attack. Strong told Shaw, “Your men, I know, are worn out, but do as you choose!” Even though Shaw knew the headfirst assault would result in severe casualties, he saw no choice. The colonel raised his sword and ordered his men to charge down the narrow beach into a hail of gunfire.

Muskets and cannons blazed through a veil of smoke and blowing sand. Hand grenades showered down as the 54th charged. As artillery shredded the regiment, Shaw shouted, “Onward, boys!” The Union force climbed the earthen ramparts, and fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued. As soon as Shaw reached the crest of the parapet, though, he was struck by bullets and mortally wounded.

Sergeant William H. Carney
Sergeant William H. Carney

When the regimental flag bearer also fell, Sergeant William H. Carney, a former slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad, threw down his rifle and picked up the Stars and Stripes to continue the charge. Although Carney sustained two grievous wounds, he refused to allow the flag to fall again. He told his comrades, “Boys, I only did my duty. The old flag never touched the ground.” Carney’s actions were the first by an African American to merit the Congressional Medal of Honor, although it was not bestowed until 1900 when it simply arrived in the mail instead of being presented in a customary ceremony.

The Confederates, outnumbered nearly three to one, refused to cede Fort Wagner, and the 54th was forced to retreat with the rest of the Union forces. Much like its battle flag that Andrew predicted would “mark the path of glory,” the regiment was in tatters. More than 40 percent of its combat troops and a third of its officers were killed or wounded at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.

Confederate soldiers buried Shaw’s body with his fallen black comrades in a mass grave in the island sand in an intended sign of disrespect. The colonel’s father, however, saw it differently: “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company—what a body-guard he has!” While the decades passed and the sea began to claim the unmarked mass grave, the 54th Regiment slipped from the national consciousness. That all changed, however, when their exploits were immortalized in the 1989 movie “Glory”—starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick.

In spite of the Union defeat, the valor and patriotism displayed by the pioneering 54th Regiment in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner countered doubts about the combat ability of African-Americans. By war’s end approximately 200,000 black soldiers would serve in the Union Army. Nearly 40,000 of them gave their lives. “Without the military help of the black freedmen,” Lincoln said, “the war against the South could not have been won.”