The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Gilder Lehrman Collection

The 54th Regiment from Massachusetts, composed of volunteers, was the first African American regiment organized in the North by the Union Army during the American Civil War. It is perhaps best known for leading the charge on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. The regiment suffered devestating losses, but its bravery became a rallying point for the Union Army and inspiration in the recruitment of African American soldiers. The 54th Regiment, which fought on through 1865, inspired many monuments, paintings, and, in 1989, a favorite film of American history teachers and students everywhere, Glory

The Gilder Lehrman Collection holds letters, diaries, and works of art dedicated to "The 54th." Explore the collection and this legendary chapter of Black History.

Storming Fort Wagner

Kurz & Allison 1890 print of the storming of Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in 1863 (Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC00317.02)Created in 1890 by Kurz & Allison, a Chicago-based design and printmaking firm, this popular print depicts the 54th Massachusetts leading the charge on Fort Wagner. The African American soldier carrying the United States flag is likely modeled on Sergeant William Carney, who took the flag from its felled standard bearer, Sergeant John Wall, and bravely charged into Fort Wagner to plant it, getting shot in the leg on the way. Once inside the fort, he realized he was alone—the rest of his regiment pinned down or retreating behind him. Miraculously, Sergeant Carney managed to escape the fort, taking another shot to the chest and a grazing shot to his head, and made it back to the Union line, never letting the flag touch the ground despite his injuries. Carney would become the first African American recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Captain Wallbridge Writes to His Son about the Losses Suffered by the 54th

A letter from Charles E. Walbridge to his son, July 19-20, 1863 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC04663.22)Captain and Assistant Quartermaster Charles Walbridge was in the 100th New York Infantry, at the scene and well positioned to see, though not directly participate in, the battle charge at Fort Wagner. In this letter to his son, he conveys the full impact of the 54th's losses as its men led the attack on the Confederate fort. The “regiment which went into the charge with over nine hundred in the ranks, cannot muster five hundred, with all their field officers killed, besides many of their line killed & wounded.”

54th Soldier Francis H. Fletcher Writes about Unequal Pay 

A letter from Francis Fletcher of the 54th Infantry Regiment, 1864 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC07345)In 1864, a year after the battle at Fort Wagner, Francis Fletcher, a black soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, wrote to an aquaintance of the inequality of treatment and pay between the white and black soldiers:

Just one year ago to day our regt was received in Boston with almost an ovation, and at 5 P.M. it will be one year. . . . in that one year no man of our regiment has received a cent of monthly pay all through the glaring perfidy of the U.S. Govt.

He refers to an act for equal pay passed in 1864:

All the misery and degradation suffered in our regiment by its members’ families is not atoned for by the passage of the bill for equal pay. . . . I cannot any more condemn nor recite our wrongs, but console myself that One who is able has said Vengeance is mine and I will repay.

Fletcher enlisted as a private at age 22 in Company A, 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on February 13, 1863, from his home in Salem, Massachusetts. During his service, he was promoted to sergeant, normally the highest rank given to black soldiers. The 54th Massachusetts is famous for its refusal to accept the unequal pay offered to black soldiers. As a result, the men of the 54th did not receive any pay for the first eighteen months of their service. Fletcher served in the 54th Massachusetts until the regiment disbanded at the end of the war. He was mustered out on August 20, 1865, in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. 

William Woodlin’s War Diary

William Woodlin enrolled in the Army at Syracuse, New York, in August 1863 at the age of 21. In his diary, which he kept through his time in service, he wrote of camp life, his service with the regimental band as a horn player, several battles, the weather, equal pay with white soldiers, and the famous 54th Massachusetts, among many other topics. A member of 8th Pennsylvania himself, he describes his part in the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, where his regiment arrived two months after fighting began. 

Julius Swain Considers Joining the 54th

Julius Swain was a telegrapher with the Massachusetts Signal Corps, 38th Regiment. He enlisted in 1862 as a second lieutenant, and was commissioned into the US Army Signal Corps in 1863, resigning in 1865. He was breveted first lieutenant and captain in March 1865. Swain considered joining the 54th Regiment. In letters to his mother and sister in particular, he frequently discussed his decision to join an African American regiment, against his mother’s wishes.

Orders for Colonel Robert Shaw

Charles Halpine relates orders for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, June 6, 1863 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC01595.01)Charles Halpine, Assistant Adjutant General, wrote to General David Hunter on June 6, 1863, about the order for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, “to embark on board the [Demole or "De Molay"] ordered to Beaufort with the least possible delay.” He states that Shaw should bring two days cooked and ten days uncooked rations for his men and instructs Shaw to bring his regiment directly to Hilton Head. The 54th Massachusetts was on the way to storm Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Shaw, was killed during the engagement.