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  • James Houser

July 18, 1863 - The 54th Massachusetts & the Battle of Fort Wagner

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 18, 1863. The Union forces in coastal South Carolina launch another attempt to capture Charleston, birthplace of secession and the Confederacy. The attack today is concentrated on Fort Wagner, and the tip of the spear will be the 54th Massachusetts – an all-black regiment. This battle is the first serious action for African-American soldiers in the Civil War.

Even though limited numbers of black soldiers had served in the Revolution, even white Americans inclined against slavery and towards abolition were skeptical of black soldiers in combat. It was hard to avoid the bias of racial attitudes during the Civil War, even on the Union side. The main Northern motivation for the war in the first two years was officially restoration of the Union, and this was what most people up North believed the war was about. Until emancipation had become a major war aim few Northern politicians thought very long or hard about the place of the “Negro” in the war as a whole. It was a contentious issue, since even the most hardcore abolitionists had to recognize that a strong emphasis on slavery as a war aim might actually harm Northern morale instead of help it.

Despite these concerns, many northerners recognized early that slave power was one of the major strategic benefits the South possessed. Every slave that was not tilling Confederate fields, driving Confederate wagons or digging Confederate trenches was another white man that had to do that task; freeing slaves, therefore, helped the war effort. Multiple generals realized this fact early, including Benjamin Butler, a Massachusetts politician with little military skill but a keen legal mind. When approached by a local Virginia slaveowner in 1861 who wanted some escaped slaves returned, Butler proudly declared that they were “war contraband.” This legal maneuver implied that escaped slaves were a warmaking resource, and could be confiscated (read: liberated) as such.

Butler’s tactic was effective. Less so was that of David Hunter. Hunter commanded the Department of the South – Union forces on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, supplied by sea and trying to close off Confederate access to the Atlantic. Without authorization from the War Department or President Lincoln, Hunter authorized the creation of several black regiments, a move which triggered fury in the South. Jefferson Davis declared Hunter a “felon to be executed if captured.” The white Southern fear of armed Negroes terrorizing white women was potent, and invoked unique fury in the Confederacy.

Abraham Lincoln was furious that Hunter had preempted his policy towards black soldiers. He was worried about the political effects it would have on border states – the slave states like Kentucky and Missouri that had remained with the Union. While Lincoln was a radical abolitionist even for his own times, he was acutely aware of the need to steer the United States towards the abolition of slavery slowly and carefully, and that meant keeping his administration and his generals on message. Lincoln forced Hunter to rescind the order.

Lincoln, of course, had his own agenda moving forward on that front. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 permanently freed any and all slaves within the boundaries of the Confederacy. This dramatic move affirmed a transition that had already begun: the conversion of a war for union to a war of liberation. It also opened the floodgates for black soldiers to be formed into regiments to fight for the Union.

Black Americans had waited for the opportunity. They knew, even if other people didn’t know, that they were capable and willing to fight for their own freedom. People like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass had made enough inroads and earned enough respect in white communities to engender some support for the idea, but it would be up to the mass of black Americans to prove it. Even to the end of the war, many generals on both sides would discount the ability of black soldiers, and the Confederates bore a special hatred for them, with multiple massacres taking place and no quarter being given.

The Governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, had long pressured the War Department to recruit African-Americans, viewing them as a major boon to the Union war effort. When the Proclamation finally took effect, he set about to organize one of the first black regiments. It wasn’t THE first – it was beaten to the punch by the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry – but was the first to be organized east of the Mississippi. Andrew reached out to Frederick Douglass and other black community leaders, along with white abolitionists, to assist with recruitment. Two of Douglass’s sons were among the first men to sign up, and every free black man in Boston was encouraged to join. For its commander (because only white men could be officers) Andrew selected the son of prominent Boston abolitionists, the 25-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The regiment was mustered in as the 54th Massachusetts on May 13, 1863, after a long period of training. It was painfully apparent that the 54th was a model unit: so many important figures were involved in its creation that a lot of eyes would be on it. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson toured the 54th’s camps in interest. This came with certain advantages, like the pick of the best men available to lead and man the unit, along with large donations of equipment and money from local abolitionists. It also came with certain disadvantages. The unit would be closely scrutinized for anything less than model behavior, both on and off the field of battle; in a very real way, thousands of important people would judge the performance of black soldiers based on the performance of the 54th.

On May 28, the 54th left Boston for Beaufort, South Carolina, headquarters of the Department of the South. The regiment took part in a few light raiding actions before its first real battle. In their off hours, they were still under constant visit by abolitionists and were an object of admiration and awe for local refugee slaves. After a similar successful raid by Harriet Tubman and the 2nd South Carolina (another all-black regiment), General James Montgomery led both the 2nd and the 54th in a raid on Darien, Georgia, less than an hour from where I sit now. Montgomery had the units burn the unoccupied town, which disgusted the youthful Colonel Shaw, who hated the idea of burning civilian homes and possessions.

Shaw was a good leader, even if – as many abolitionists did – he had something of a patronizing tone towards his soldiers. He remarked that “the intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me,” which reveals both the admiration he gained for them and the somewhat low expectations he had even for men he wanted freed. He nevertheless taught them what he had learned as a young officer in Virginia, fighting against Stonewall Jackson and at Antietam. He resisted attempts by local commanders to backbench his men for labor on the docks or menial duties – which would be the fate of many black soldiers in the World Wars, when American generals forgot that they could fight.

The Union was preparing for a major offensive in South Carolina. Hunter had been fired for disagreements with his superiors, so the Department was now under General Quincy A. Gillmore. Gillmore planned a summer campaign to try and close the port of Charleston if possible. This required the capture of Morris Island and its main fortification, Fort Wagner, which controlled the southern approaches to Charleston Harbor. If Fort Wagner was captured, artillery on the north end of Morris Island would have the ability to bombard and maybe reduce Fort Sumter, opening the whole city to Union attack and forcing its evacuation.

The North had already tried to take Fort Wagner once on July 11, but it was repulsed with heavy losses. The narrow island meant that any attack on the Fort had to be frontal, running across the sandy beaches of the Carolina coast to draw up with the Confederate earthworks. The Confederate position was well-fortified, with log barricades placed in front of the trenches and moats with spikes along the seaward side. Fort Wagner was also well-stocked with heavy artillery and had a garrison of 1800 men. Across the entire approach, the assaulting troops were raked with musket and artillery fire, and the July 11 attack failed.

Gillmore decided to make a second attack (he really had no other choice if he wanted to actually take Charleston) and planned extensively this time. He would launch a diversionary attack on the same day farther north, and also bring up several monitors to bombard the fort from the sea. He hoped that with a concentration of fire on the enemy position, he could finally overwhelm the stubborn enemy garrison.

The bombardment began on July 18 and lasted eight hours, but caused little damage to the walls of the fort, most of the cannonballs and explosive shells striking the soft sand. The Union infantry approached the fort, staying out of range of the Rebel guns and waited for a twilight assault, when visibility would be low and they could get close. The regiment chosen to lead the assault was the 54th Massachusetts. It was time to see whether black soldiers could fight.

As the din of the bombardment finally fell silent, allowing a calm to settle on the thin strip of beach, Colonel Shaw led his men out of their positions, shouting “Forward, 54th, forward!” They only had a few minutes and charged forward across the beach as the dazed Confederates slowly returned to their guns. The 54th was still 150 yards from the fort and racing in proud formation as the defenders began to open up with cannon and small arms, tearing shreds through their ranks. The other Union regiments followed, and even before they had reached the Confederate lines the 54th twisted and writhed under the sudden shock of Rebel firepower. Nevertheless, they continued forward, leaning in as if marching into a strong wind.

The 54th’s color-bearer led the way alongside Shaw, the Stars and Stripes that had been contributed by Boston abolitionists snapping in the breeze. He took a bullet quickly, but before the flag could touch the ground it was seized by Sergeant William H. Carney, who carried the flag to the ramparts and back. Carney kept the flag atop the parapet during the assault, refused to yield it to Confederate attackers, and staggered back with the flag even though he suffered two wounds in the battle and subsequent retreat. Carney only surrendered the flag when he found an officer of his regiment, stating to his fellow black soldiers that “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.”

The 54th crossed the water-filled ditch, stormed the barricades, and took the outer wall of the fort. Shaw reached the parapet and urged his men forward, but fell quickly with three bullets to the chest. Although the men of the 54th fought bravely with bayonet and the ends of their muskets, hand-to-hand, the effort was futile. The other Union regiments also managed to cross the beach, but suffered so heavily as well that they were forced to fall back. The 54th, first to reach the enemy lines, was the last to fall back as darkness fell. They and the other regiments had only been able to hold their penetration for an hour.

Shaw’s body was left amongst the casualties. The Confederates returned the bodies of all other Union officers killed in the assault, but not Shaw’s, saying that if he had been commanding white troops they would have returned it. Though the move was intended as an insult by the Confederates – they bore a special hatred for white officers commanding black troops – Shaw’s friends and family took it as an honor. Their loved one would be buried with his soldiers, befitting his role as a crusader for emancipation. Shaw’s father wrote to the regiment: “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies…surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers.”

The Second Battle of Fort Wagner, of course, was a Union defeat. About 1500 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured in the assault. Of the 600 men that the 54th Massachusetts brought to action, 270 were casualties – a loss rate of 40%. The Union would not take Wagner for another two months, when the Confederates finally abandoned it after a long and costly bombardment.

The 54th Massachusetts was widely recognized for its enormous valor and the heavy price they paid for the assault on Fort Wagner, futile as it may have been. The battle served as evidence that black soldiers were not only able to serve, but could be outstanding in their fight for their own freedom. By the end of the Civil War, over 186,000 African Americans would fight in blue for the Union, though they often suffered massacre or reenslavement if they were captured by the Confederates. They made up almost 10% of Union forces by the end of the war, and Lincoln acknowledged that they made a major contribution to final victory in the Civil War. In the end, black Americans were not just given their freedom; they fought for it.

Sergeant William Carney would be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1900 for his day at Fort Wagner. Although he was not the first black service member to receive our nation’s highest award, his was the first action for which it was awarded. Luckily, he was still alive to receive it, before his death in 1908.

The 54th Massachusetts and its charge at Fort Wagner were convincingly portrayed in the 1989 film “Glory.” Matthew Broderick stars as Colonel Shaw and a young Denzel Washington plays a fictional character largely based on Sergeant Carney. Morgan Freeman is in it too. It’s a good watch, and still holds up today.

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