The ‘Glory’ Regiment: Leading the Way

"The Storming of Fort Wagner." (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
“The Storming of Fort Wagner.” (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry was defeated in the second battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.

Here’s a few things you may not have known about one of the first African-American units in the American Civil War.

The governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, authorized the regiment in March 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was decided by the War Department that white officers would be in charge of all black units. Robert Gould Shaw was chosen to lead the unit as its colonel.

Shaw was born to a family of wealthy Boston abolitionists. He attended Harvard for three years but withdrew before graduating. Shaw joined the 7th New York Militia in 1861 as a private and would defend Washington, D.C., and later fight in the first battle of Winchester and the battles of Cedar Mountain and Antietam. He was approached about leading a black regiment in late 1862 and was initially hesitant, but was impressed by the dedication of his soldiers.

The recruitment of soldiers was so successful that the unit’s doctors were able to set a very rigid physical exam for entry. The Surgeon General said of the unit: “A more robust, strong and healthy set of men were never mustered into the service of the United States.” The regiment left Boston on May 28, 1863, heading for Beaufort, South Carolina.

When the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts were recruited, they were promised the same pay and allowances as white soldiers. However, when they arrived in South Carolina, they were informed that they would be paid 70 percent the amount that white soldiers were paid and would also have to pay for their uniforms, which was not required of white soldiers. Shaw and his men protested the measure, and the regiment boycotted receiving their pay. The state of Massachusetts offered to make up the difference, but the troops refused on principle.

The regiment’s first action took place on July 16 on James Island, South Carolina. They lost 42 men in the battle.

Two days later, the regiment, along with two brigades of white troops, began the assault on Fort Wagner.

Shaw led his men into battle shouting “Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward.” Shortly afterward, he was shot three times and died almost instantly.

After the soldier carrying the flag was fatally wounded, Sergeant William H. Carney, who was born a slave in Virginia in 1840, retrieved the flag and marched forward with it, suffering multiple wounds. As the Union troops retreated under fire, Carney struggled, but managed to make it back behind Union lines. As he handed the flag off to another survivor he said, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.” In 1900, more than 37 years after the battle, Carney became the first African-American to earn the Medal of Honor. 272 of the 600 soldiers were killed, wounded or taken hostage. A total of 53 were killed.

Shaw was buried in a mass grave with many of his men. Confederate General Johnson Hagood returned the bodies of other Union officers who died, but because Shaw led black soldiers, he buried him in an unmarked grave with his men, intending it as an insult. Shaw’s family and friends took it as an honor.

His father, Frank Shaw, said “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and beloved soldiers…. We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company.”

In 1864, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to pay the men  of the 54th the same as their white counterparts.

Governor Andrew said of the regiment, “I know not where, in all of human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory.”

The regiment’s story was dramatized in the 1989 film “Glory” with Matthew Broderick playing Robert Gould Shaw.

The unit was reactivated in 2008 to act as the Massachusetts National Guard’s ceremonial unit, which renders military honors at funerals and other state functions.

Our question: What actor won an Academy Award for his performance in “Glory”?

Today is Constitution Day in Uruguay.

It’s unofficially World Caviar Day, Hug Your Kid Day, and World Listening Day.

It’s the birthday of comedian Red Skelton, who was born in 1913; Nelson Mandela, who was born in 1918; and writer Hunter S. Thompson, who was born in 1937.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 2000, the top song in the U.S. was “Everything You Want” by Vertical Horizon.

The No. 1 movie was “X-Men,” while the novel “The House on Hope Street” by Danielle Steel topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly Take-Home Test

What was the site of the last Confederate surrender?


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