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The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. Prior to 1863, no concerted effort was made to recruit black troops as Union soldiers. The passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863 provided the impetus for the use of free black men as soldiers and, at a time when state governors were responsible for the raising of regiments for the federal government, Massachusetts was the first to respond with the formation of the Fifty-fourth Regiment.
The formation of the regiment was a matter of controversy and public attention from its inception. Questions were raised as to the black man's ability to fight in the "white man's war." Although Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew believed that black men were capable of leadership, others felt that commissioning blacks was too controversial; Andrew needed all the support he could get. The commissioned , then, were white and the black men up to the rank of lieutenant were non-commissioned. On 28 May 1863, upon the presentation of the unit's colors by the governor, they marched through the streets of Boston, spectators lined the streets with the hopes of viewing this experimental unit. The regiment then departed Boston on the transport De Molay for the coast of South Carolina.