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Remembering The North's First Black Civil War Unit


If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry fought a historic battle in the Civil War. The unit was almost entirely African-American. They would have been called colored back then. The first such unit from the North to fight for the union. You might have seen their story depicted in the movie "Glory" with Denzel Washington.


DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Private Trip) I love the 54th. Y'all's the onliest family I got.

LYDEN: The assault on Fort Wagner took place in South Carolina on July 18, 1863. And we remember that battle here today with the help of historian Steven Hill. Welcome to the program.

STEVEN HILL: Thank you. Glad to be here.

LYDEN: So tell me a little bit about the facts behind the 54th Regiment. Who were they? Who put them together?

HILL: The regiment was created by Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts. He was definitely an abolitionist. Immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation, he got authorization from the War Department to create regiments of black soldiers. He was not allowed to have black officers in those regiments. The call was put out throughout the North. There were plenty of men who were just waiting for this opportunity. They filled up the regiment with the thousand men required fairly quickly and then started another regiment because there was even an overflow.


ANDRE BRAUGHER: (as Corporal Thomas Searles) Rob, is it true? We have to be a colored regiment?

CARY ELWES: (as Major Cabot Forbes) So it seems.

BRAUGHER: (as Corporal Thomas Searles) Then I am your first volunteer.

LYDEN: Who was their captain for the regiment, Robert Gould Shaw?

HILL: He was handpicked by Governor Andrew. And initially, he did have reservations about being in charge of a black regiment. It was one thing to say, I think these men ought to be allowed to fight like everyone else. It was another thing to say, I will stand up there in front of this regiment.


MATTHEW BRODERICK: (as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw) The people of Massachusetts request the honor of leading the attack on Fort Wagner.

JAY O. SANDERS: (as General George Crockett Strong) You and your men haven't slept for two days.

BRODERICK: (as Colonel Shaw) There's more to fighting than rest, Sir. There's character. There's strength of heart.

LYDEN: The assault on Fort Wagner, it's in South Carolina. Why was it important?

HILL: It was important because it was one of the outlying fortifications around the town of Charleston, which was the impetus of the entire Civil War. Those were the people who first fired on the United States flag. So there was a great psychological need to assault and hopefully to capture Charleston, South Carolina.

LYDEN: So what was this unit - which had only been together at the time of this battle, you know, just about six months - up against?

HILL: Well, they were up against a well-fortified and very determined enemy within the fort, which is bigger than the entire number of men in the 54th Massachusetts. But, of course, the 54th was not the only regiment attacking, but it was the lead regiment. When I talk to this to, say, high school kids or something, they go: Oh, my God. Why would anybody want to be in the front? Well, it was important. It was a post of honor. And all his men appreciated that they were the ones that were going to be running right into the gunfire, and they were ready to go.


MORGAN FREEMAN: (as Sgt. Maj. Rawlins) We want them to know that we went down standing up.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as Characters) Yes.

FREEMAN: (as Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins) We want them to know, Heavenly Father, that we died for freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as Characters) Yes.

LYDEN: They took terrible casualties.

HILL: They did take terrible casualties. Shaw himself was leading the forward section of the regiment. He was up there on top of the wall and was pierced by several bullets, almost at the same time, just as he was waving his sword and calling forward, saying something along the lines of for my brave 54.


BRODERICK: (as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw) (Unintelligible)

HILL: And he dropped dead right at the foot of this flag of Massachusetts.


LYDEN: That was historian Steven Hill from the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. Steven, thanks again.

HILL: Thanks very much. Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.