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54th Massachusetts Infantry in the U.S. Civil War

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  • Captain William H Simpkins (c.1839 - 1863)
    Captain William H. Simpkins enlisted in the Massachusetts 44th Regiment that formed in Boston in the fall of 1862. He was recorded as being in Company F and was a Corporal when he left the unit to join...
  • Captain Cabot J. Russel (c.1843 - 1863)
    Cabot J. Russel enlisted in the Massachusetts 44th Regiment in 1862 in Boston as a Private. He became a Sargent in Company F. He became a Captain in the 54th.In March 31st of 1863 when the Massachusett...
  • Sgt. Maj.(USA), Lewis Henry Douglass (1840 - 1908)
    Originally buried in Columbian Harmony Cemetery (Defunct) Washington City District of Columbia1960 moved to National Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery Hyattsville, Prince George's County, MarylandWashingt...
  • Lt. Giles Pease, MD (1839 - 1891)
    Civil War Surgeon: Giles Moseley, son of Doctor Giles (Giles, Noah, Robert, Robert, John, Robert) and Mabel R. (Mosely) Pease; b. May 03, 1839 in Boston, MA; d. Dec 14, 1891 in San Fra...
  • John Wall (1842 - 1912)
    Wall (1842-1912), Orindatus’ half-brother moved to Oberlin and was a student. He left school to join the first black regiment. Twenty-two year old John Wall was the Color Sergeant of the famous 54th Ma...


The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Colored) was an infantry regiment that saw extensive service in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

The regiment was one of the first official African-American units in the United States during the Civil War. [1]The 1st South Carolina Volunteers, recruited from freed slaves, was the first Union Army regiment organized with African-American soldiers in the Civil War, though many African-Americans had fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812 on both sides.The regiment was authorized in March 1863 by the Governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew. Commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, it was commissioned after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation.[2] Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton decided white officers would be in charge of all "colored" units.[3] Andrew selected Robert Gould Shaw to be the regiment's colonel and Norwood Penrose "Pen" Hallowell to be its lieutenant colonel.[2] Like many officers of regiments of African-American troops, both Robert Gould Shaw and Hallowell were promoted several grades, both being captains at the time.[2] The rest of the officers were evaluated by Shaw and Hallowell: these officers included Luis Emilio,[4] and Garth Wilkinson "Wilkie" James, brother of Henry James and William James. Many of these officers were of abolitionist families and several were chosen by Governor Andrew himself. Lt. Col. Norwood Hallowell was joined by his younger brother Edward Needles Hallowell who commanded the 54th as a full colonel for the rest of the war after Shaw's death. Twenty-four of the 29 officers were veterans, but only six had been previously commissioned.[5]

The soldiers were recruited by white abolitionists (including Shaw's parents). These recruiters included Lieutenant J. Appleton,[6] also the first man commissioned in the regiment, whose recruiting efforts included posting a notice in the Boston Journal.[7] Wendell Phillips and Edward L. Pierce spoke at a Joy Street Church recruiting rally, encouraging free blacks to enlist.[citation needed] About 100 people were actively involved in recruitment, including those from Joy Street Church and a group of individuals appointed by Governor Andrew to enlist black men for the 54th.[8]

The 54th trained at Camp Meigs in Readville near Boston. While there they received considerable moral support from abolitionists in Massachusetts, including Ralph Waldo Emerson.[8] Material support included warm clothing items, battle flags and $500 contributed for the equipping and training of a regimental band. As it became evident that many more recruits were coming forward than were needed, the medical exam for the 54th was described as "rigid and thorough" by the Massachusetts Surgeon-General. This resulted in what he described as the most "robust, strong and healthy set of men" ever mustered into service in the United States.[9] Despite this, as was common in the Civil War, a few men died of disease prior to the 54th's departure from Camp Meigs.[citation needed]

By most accounts the 54th left Boston with very high morale. This was despite the fact that Jefferson Davis' proclamation of December 23, 1862,[10] effectively put both African-American enlisted men and white officers under a death sentence if captured. The proclamation was affirmed by the Confederate Congress in January 1863 and turned both enlisted soldiers and their white officers over to the states from which the enlisted soldiers had been slaves. As most Southern states had enacted draconian measures for "servile insurrection" after Nat Turner's Rebellion, the likely sentence was a capital one.[citation needed]

The 54th left Boston with fanfare on May 28, 1863, and arrived to more celebrations in Beaufort, South Carolina. They were greeted by local blacks and by Northern abolitionists, some of whom had deployed from Boston a year earlier as missionaries to the Port Royal Experiment[11] In Beaufort, they joined with the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, a unit of South Carolina freedmen led by James Montgomery.[12] After the 2nd Volunteers' successful Raid at Combahee Ferry, Montgomery led both units in a raid on the town of Darien, Georgia.[13] The population had fled, and Montgomery ordered the soldiers to loot and burn the empty town.[14] Shaw objected to this activity and complained over Montgomery's head that burning and looting were not suitable activities for his model regiment.[15]

The regiment's first battlefield action took place in a skirmish with Confederate troops on James Island, South Carolina, on July 16. The regiment stopped a Confederate assault,[16] losing 42 men in the process.[citation needed]

A letter from First Sergeant Robert John Simmons, a former British Army soldier from Bermuda serving in B Company, written shortly before the attack on Battery Wagner, was published in the New York Tribune on the 23rd of December, 1863. [17]

Folly Island, South Carolina

July 18, 1863;

We are on the march to Fort Wagner, to storm it. We have just completed our successful retreat from James Island; we fought a desperate battle there Thursday morning. Three companies of us, B, H, and K, were out on picket about a good mile in advance of the regiment. We were attacked early in the morning. Our company was in the reserve, when the outposts were attacked by rebel infantry and cavalry. I was sent out by our Captain in command of a squad of men to support the left flank. The bullets fairly rained around us; when I got there the poor fellows were falling down around me, with pitiful groans. Our pickets only numbered about 250 men, attacked by about 900. It is supposed by the line of battle in the distance, that they were supported by reserve of 3,000 men. We had to fire and retreat toward our own encampment. One poor Sergeant of ours was shot down along side of me; several others were wounded near me. God has protected me through this, my first fiery, leaden trial, and I do give Him the glory, and render my praises unto His holy name. My poor friend [Sergeant Peter] Vogelsang is shot through the lungs; his case is critical, but the doctor says he may probably live. His company suffered very much. Poor good and brave Sergeant (Joseph D.) Wilson of his company [H], after killing four rebels with his bayonet, was shot through the head by the fifth one. Poor fellow! May his noble spirit rest in peace. The General has complimented the Colonel on the galantry and bravery of his regiment.

Depiction of the attack on Fort Wagner in the painting The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground The regiment gained recognition on July 18, 1863, when it spearheaded an assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. 272 of the 600 men who charged Fort Wagner were "killed, wounded or captured."[18] At this battle Colonel Shaw was killed, along with 29 of his men; 24 more later died of wounds, 15 were captured, 52 were missing in action and never accounted for, and 149 were wounded. The total regimental casualties of 272 would be the highest total for the 54th in a single engagement during the war. Although Union forces were not able to take and hold the fort (despite taking a portion of the walls in the initial assault), the 54th was widely acclaimed for its valor during the battle, and the event helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of African-American troops, a key development that President Abraham Lincoln once noted as helping to secure the final victory. Decades later, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing the U.S. flag as the flag bearer fell, carrying the flag to the enemy ramparts and back, and singing "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!" While other African Americans had since been granted the award by the time it was presented to Carney, Carney's is the earliest action for which the Medal of Honor was awarded to an African American.[citation needed]

The Battle of Olustee Ironically, during the week leading up to the 54th's action near Charleston, simmering racial strife climaxed in the New York Draft Riots.[19] African Americans on the city's waterfront and Lower East Side were beaten, tortured, and lynched by white mobs angered over conscription for the Union war effort; rioters mortally wounded the nephew of Sergeant Robert Simmons,[20] who would himself be mortally wounded and captured at Fort Wagner.[21] These mobs directed their animosity toward blacks because they felt the Civil War was caused by them. However, the bravery of the 54th would help to assuage anger of this kind.[citation needed]

Under the command of now-Colonel Edward Hallowell, the 54th fought a rear-guard action covering the Union retreat at the Battle of Olustee. During the retreat, the unit was suddenly ordered to counter-march back to Ten-Mile station. The locomotive of a train carrying wounded Union soldiers had broken down and the wounded were in danger of capture. When the 54th arrived, the men attached ropes to the engine and cars and manually pulled the train approximately three miles to Camp Finnegan, where horses were secured to help pull the train. After that, the train was pulled by both men and horses to Jacksonville for a total distance of ten miles. It took forty-two hours to pull the train that distance. [2]

As part of an all-black brigade under Col. Alfred S. Hartwell, they unsuccessfully attacked entrenched Confederate militia at the November 1864 Battle of Honey Hill. In mid-April 1865, they fought at the Battle of Boykin's Mill, a small affair in South Carolina that proved to be one of the last engagements of the war.

Muster roll: *