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The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was organized in early 1863 by Robert Gould Shaw twenty-six year old member of a prominent Boston abolitionist family Shaw had earlier served in the Seventh New York National Guard and the Second Massachusetts Infantry and was appointed colonel of the Fifty-fourth in February 1863 by Massachusetts governor John A Andrew As one of the first black units organized in the northern states the Fifty-fourth was the object of great interest and curiosity and its performance would be considered an important indication of the possibilities surrounding the use of blacks in combat The regiment was composed primarily of free blacks from throughout the north particularly Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Amongst its recruits was Lewis N Douglass son of the famous ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass After a period of recruiting and training the unit proceeded to the Department of the South arriving at Hilton Head South Carolina on June 3 1863 The regiment earned its greatest fame on July 18 1863 when it led the unsuccessful and controversial assault on the Confederate positions at Battery Wagner In this desperate attack the Fifty-fourth was placed in the vanguard and over 250 men of the regiment became casualties Shaw the regiments young colonel died on the crest of the enemy parapet shouting Forward Fifty-fourth That heroic charge coupled with Shaws death made the regiment a household name throughout the north and helped spur black recruiting For the remainder of 1863 the unit participated in siege operations around Charleston before boarding transports for Florida
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