When the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment stormed Fort Wagner July 18, 1863, only to be driven back with the loss of its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, and many of its rank and file, it established for all time the fact that the colored soldier would fight and fight well. This had already been demonstrated in Louisiana by colored regiments under the command of General Godfrey Weitzel in the attack upon Port Hudson on May 27 of the same year. On the occasion regiments composed for the greater part of raw recruits, plantation hands with centuries of servitude under the lash behind them, stormed trenches and dashed upon cold steel in the hands of their former masters and oppressors. After that there was no more talk in that portion of the country of the “natural cowardice” of the negro. But the heroic qualities of Colonel Shaw, his social prominence and that of his officers, and the comparative nearness of their battlefield to the North, attracted greater and more lasting attention to the daring and bravery of their exploit, until it finally became fixed in many minds as the first real baptism of fire of colored American soldiers.
After Wagner the recruiting of colored regiments, originally opposed by both North and South, went on apace, particularly under the Federal government, which organized no less than one hundred and fifty-four, designated as “United States Colored Troops.” Colonel Shaw’s raising of a colored regiment aroused quite as much comment in the North because of the race prejudice it defied, as because of the novelty of the new organization. General Weitzel tendered his resignation the instant General B. F. Butler assigned black soldiers to his brigade, and was with difficulty induced to serve on. His change of mind was a wise one, and not only because these colored soldiers covered him with glory at Port Hudson. It was his good fortune to be the central figure in one of the most dramatic incidents of a war that must ever rank among the most thrilling and tragic the world has seen. The black cavalrymen who rode into Richmond, the first of the Northern troops to enter the Southern capital, went in waving their sabres and crying to the negroes on the sidewalks, “We have come to set you free!” They were from the division of Godfrey Weitzel, and American history has no more stirring moment.