Although no regiments of black troops were officially mustered into Federal service before January 1863, black troops were organized before that time. Some black regiments were organized in 1862 without War Department authorization, including: Native Guard Regiments raised by Gens. Benjamin F. Butler and John W. Phelps in Louisiana; the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers (the first black regiment to actually participate in combat) raised by James H. Lane; and the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Colored Volunteers organized by Gen. David Hunter in the spring and summer of 1862. These early efforts failed, due in large part to lingering Northern concerns about the unauthorized use of black troops in combat.
The Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, authorized President Lincoln to receive blacks into military service as soldiers, but he stated that he was still not ready to commit Negroes to combat. On August 25, 1862, the War Department gave official sanction to the policy of recruiting Negro soldiers by authorizing General Rufus Saxton in the Department of the South "to arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as he deemed necessary, not to exceed 5,000." President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which was issued as War Department General Order 1, January 2, 1863, specifically authorized free blacks to be "received into the armed service of the United States."
The recruiting of black soldiers by the War Department after the Emancipation Proclamation was slow until Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas into the Mississippi Valley in March 1863 with the authority to recruit and organize free and contraband blacks for U.S. volunteer service. The recruiting effort was successful and led to the establishment of the Colored Troops Bureau on May 22, 1863, by War Department General Order 143. This Bureau, directly under the Adjutant General's Office, was made responsible for recruiting colored troops, commissioning officers to command them, and organizing and maintaining the records of the various colored troop organizations. Maj. Charles W. Foster was appointed chief with the title of Assistant Adjutant General. All black regiments were now to be designated as U.S. Colored Troops and the first of these was mustered into Federal service on June 30, 1863, at Washington, DC. Ultimately, the Corps d'Afrique and other State organizations were redesignated U.S. Colored Troops, but a few units raised in Massachusetts (including the 54th), Connecticut and Louisiana retained their original State designations.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) was conceived by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew. Although it was a Massachusetts volunteer regiment, the majority of its men actually came from other States. The regiment's enlisted personnel were black, including two sons of the prominent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but its officers were white. Governor Andrew selected Robert Gould Shaw to command the unit; and Shaw selected his staff, nearly all of whom had military experience. The first recruits were raised at Boston on February 9, 1863, and by the end of the following month four companies had been organized and mustered into service. Three more companies were mustered on April 23, and the remaining three on May 13, 1863. The regiment, which consisted of approximately 1,200 men at its inception, was officially organized at Camp Meigs, Readville, MA, on May 13, 1863, to serve three years. Its field and staff components consisted of: Surgeon, Assistant Surgeon, Adjutant, Quartermaster, Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel, and two Colonels. There were ten companies, usually with a captain in charge of each company. (See appendix.)
On May 23, 1863, the regiment left the State under orders to report to Gen. David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South. It arrived at Hilton Head, SC, on June 3 and on the same day proceeded to Beaufort, SC. A few days later the regiment was ordered to St. Simon's Island, GA, where it reported to Col. James Montgomery of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers (Colored). While there it took part in an expedition up the Altamaha River to Darien, GA. It returned to Hilton Head on June 25 and formed part of Gen. Alfred H. Terry's expedition to James Island, SC, in July. It went into action for the first time at Secessionville, SC, where it received the brunt of the enemy's attack and suffered 45 killed, wounded, and missing.
The regiment then proceeded to Morris Island, which it reached on the evening of July 18, numbering 600 effective men; on that night it was ordered to lead the assault on Fort Wagner, SC. Advancing to the outer works, it planted the regimental flag on the parapet, but the struggle was soon seen to be hopeless and the attacking forces were withdrawn. The remnant of the regiment, together with a few fugitive men from other commands, was rallied about 700 yards from the fort by Captain Luis F. Emilio, the only officer above the grade of lieutenant not killed or wounded. This position was held throughout the night in expectation of a sortie by the enemy and in the morning the 54th Massachusetts was relieved by the10th Connecticut. The 54th's total casualties in killed, wounded, and missing were 261, including Cols. Shaw and Edward N. Hallowell.
The regiment remained on duty in the trenches and in fatigue duty throughout the siege, and when the Confederates evacuated the fort on September 7, it was among the first to enter. Col. Edward N. Hallowell took active command of the regiment on October 17, having recovered from wounds received during the assault of July 18. The ranks of the regiment had now been augmented by 100 new recruits and by the return of many of the convalescents. It engaged in strengthening the works until January 1864 when it formed part of Gen. Truman Seymour's expedition to Florida. There it participated in the battle of Olustee, where it lost 87 men killed, wounded, and missing out of 500 engaged.
The 54th returned to Morris Island on April 18 and remained there throughout the succeeding summer and autumn. Eight companies under Lt. Col. Henry N. Hooper moved to Hilton Head in November 1864 and were assigned to Col. Alfred S. Hartwell's 2d brigade as part of the Coast Division under Gen. John P. Hatch. Moving with this division to Boyd's Neck on the Broad River with this division on November 29, six companies were engaged at Honey Hill, SC, on the 30th and formed part of the reserve at Deveaux Neck, December 9. The division then moved to Graham's Neck and Pocotaligo and entered Charleston, February 27, 1865, where it was joined by the 54th's companies B and F, which had been left at Morris Island.
The regiment moved to Savannah in March 1865 and remained there until the 27th. It arrived in Georgetown, SC, on the 3lst of March and formed part of a provisional division under Gen. Edward E. Potter. In April it served under Potter on a 20-day expedition into central South Carolina during the course of which it was engaged in constant skirmishing and marching. On the l7th the enemy was met in some force at Boykin's Mill, where the 54th lost 2 killed and 20 wounded. It returned to Georgetown on the 25th and to Charleston on May 6, and then served by detachments on guard and garrison duty in various parts of the State until August 17, 1865. Three days later the 54th was mustered out of service at Mount Pleasant, SC. It reached Boston by steamers C.F. Thomas and Ashland in two detachments, on August 26th and 28th. On September 1, 1865, the men were paid and discharged on Galloupe's Island. After marching that day through the streets of Boston, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) was finally disbanded on the Boston Common.