Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Although its name might lead many to believe that the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT), was made up of African American soldiers from New England, the unit included a number of Pennsylvanians. In fact, forty-five of the recruits lived in Franklin County, and an additional thirteen joined the 55th Massachusetts, organized for the overflow from the 54th.

The regiment, authorized in March 1863 by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew (1818–1867) and commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863), was an all-Black unit, with the exception of its officers who were white. Andrew personally selected the officers, and many soldiers were recruited by Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). Shaw was a member of a prominent East Coast family and a fervent abolitionist whose father, Francis G. Shaw (1809–1882), helped establish the National Freedman’s Relief Association in 1862 to provide education and industrial training for free Blacks. Second in command was Lieutenant Colonel Norwood Penrose Halowell (1839–1914), a native of Philadelphia who later was named colonel of the 55th Massachusetts. After organizing and training at Camp Meigs in Readville, now part of Boston, the 54th Massachusetts left to fight for the North on May 28, 1863.

The 54th saw intensive action at the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863, after which Blacks were given a wider role in fighting. African American soldiers were paid less than their white comrades until the regiment protested, prompting Congress, in 1864, to equalize and issue retroactive payment. The first Black soldier awarded the Medal of Honor (MOH), Sergeant William H. Carney (1840–1908), of Massachusetts, was a member of the unit; he received the MOH for his valor at the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1900. The 54th Massachusetts fought at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, and the Battle of Honey Hill and the Battle of Brooklyn’s Mill, South Carolina.

Historians contend that African Americans living in Franklin County refused to wait for Pennsylvania to organize a Black regiment and, instead, joined the 54th Massachusetts. They also believe that a recruiter for the 54th, possibly headquartered in Philadelphia or Harrisburg, was responsible for enlisting Black soldiers from the Keystone State’s central southern tier, possibly because many African Americans resided in the region. Pennsylvania soldiers comprised 20 percent of the regiment, and Mercersburg, located in western Franklin County, was second only to Philadelphia in mustering volunteers from the Commonwealth. Nearly forty USCT veterans, including thirteen who served with the 54th Massachusetts, are buried in Mercersburg’s Zion Union Cemetery. Mercersburg alone sent eighty-eight African Americans to aid the Union cause.

The saga of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was dramatized in Glory, a 1989 motion picture starring Matthew Broderick as Shaw and a cast including Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, which won three Academy Awards that year, as well as a Golden Globe in 1990 and a Grammy and an Image Award in 1991. The movie was critically acclaimed for portraying African American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice to achieve equality. The film also led to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment being nicknamed “The Glory Regiment.”

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission installed a state historical marker on November 7, 2009, on Bennett Avenue near the Zion Union Cemetery in Mercersburg to honor the African American soldiers who fought with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.