African Americans volunteered for military service when the Civil War began, but it was not until the fall of 1862 when black men organized without official military approval in Kansas saw battle. The 1st South Carolina Volunteers were the first officially recognized unit. The 54th Massachusetts, like other black units, was led by a white officer. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw volunteered to lead the regiment and grew to respect the men and supported their efforts to equal pay.
In both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, African Americans fought on behalf of the United States. The men of the 54th made headlines when they refused to accept a salary lower than white soldiers while remaining in the army and fighting both racial injustice in the Union Army and the Confederacy's attempt to maintain slavery. The 54th were joined by black soldiers in other units and were eventually able to secure equal pay retroactively.
During the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, Colonel Shaw led his men in a charge to take the fort from Confederate control. Shaw was killed while leading the charge before his unit got close to the fort. Shaw's men continued the charge despite high losses. To demonstrate their disdain for white officers who would lead African American troops into battle, Confederate leaders ordered Shaw's body to be buried in a mass grave with the black men of his unit. Up to this time, the South would always return the dead officers of the North back to have proper burials as a sign of respect. Although intended as an act of disrespect against Shaw for leading an African American regiment against the South.
Sergeant William Carney deserves much of the credit for training the men of the 54th. Carney became the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor because he saved the American flag from being captured by Confederate forces during the Battle of Fort Wagner. He was shot several times during his brave actions to defend the flag.
The monument was dedicated on May 31, 1897, in a ceremony that included Carney, the surviving members of the 54th and 55th Regiments, the 5th Calvary, and speakers such as Booker T. Washington. In 1982, the names of the other 62 soldiers who died during the Battle of Fort Wagner were added to the lower part of the memorial.