The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw  after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. The 54th Massachusetts was composed primarily of African American freemen.Two of the recruits were sons of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The regiment gained international fame on July 18, 1863, when it spearheaded an assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. Of the six hundred men that stormed Fort Wagner, one hundred and sixteen, including Colonel Shaw, were killed. Another hundred and fifty-six were wounded or captured. Although the Union was not able to take and hold the fort, the 54th was widely acclaimed for its valor, and the event helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of African-American troops, a key development that President Abraham Lincoln once noted as helping to secure the final victory.

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