On July 18, 1863, the regiment won undying glory by leading the bloody assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. In the attack nearly half the regiment was killed, wounded or captured. Colonel Shaw was among those who died. For his bravery in the battle, Sergeant William H. Carney became the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. The survivors of the Fifty-fourth went on to participate in the eventual capture of Fort Wagner several weeks later.The Frémont referred to in the first stanza of the song is General John Charles Frémont, a trailblazing Western explorer who was given command of the Army of the West at the beginning of the War Between the States. In a proclamation dated August 31, 1861, Frémont proved himself to be more adept as a politician than as a general by declaring that "[t]he property, real and personal, of all persons in the state of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States, or who shall be directly proven to have taken an active part with their enemies in the field, is declared to be confiscated to the public use, and their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared freemen." Although the move was greeted with great rejoicing in the North, Abraham Lincoln (who would eventually do Frémont one better when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation) feared that the order would push border states like Kentucky into the arms of the Confederacy and on September 2 ordered Frémont to rescind it. When Frémont refused, Lincoln sacked him as commander of the Army of the West.
The 54th Massachusetts continued to serve throughout the remainder of the war. They fought at Olustee, Florida; Honey Hill, South Carolina; and finally at Boykin's Mills, South Carolina.
The example of steadfast courage and heroism set by the 54th Massachusetts paved the way for the enlistment of over 200,000 African Americans in the Union Army and Navy.
George McClellan was unenthusiastic about allowing free blacks to serve in the ranks and did his utmost to ensure that it never happened in the Army of the Potomac while it was under his command. The Confederate high command was equally appalled at the prospect, so much so that Jefferson Davis ordered that any black soldiers taken prisoner -- whether they were freemen or runaway slaves -- be returned to slavery or hung and that any white officers who had commanded black troops be executed.
"Give Us A Flag"