150 years ago today, Union soldiers launched a desperate assault against Fort Wagner on Morris Island outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Leading the way was the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment of free African Americans charging under the American flag, storming a fortress commanded by white southerners, a scenario which was unimaginable just two years earlier at the war’s outset.
July 1863 was in many ways the pivotal month of the American Civil War. September 1862 could lay claim to this as well, with the Union victory at Antietam and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. However, a trifecta of events in July 1863 forever changed the future of the Civil War and the future of American history.
On July 3, 1863, the Union Army of the Potomac defeated the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on the fields surrounding the farming town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The three day battle there on July 1, 2, and 3 culminated in a Union victory. It also exacted a heavy toll of 50,000 plus casualties, forever staining the fields of Gettysburg with the memory of those lives lost and those that were forever changed, along with the history of the nation. Such heavy bloodshed was the necessary price for "a new birth of freedom" to begin.
On July 4, 1863, Major General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Confederate forces in Vicksburg, Mississippi. A 6 month long campaign to seize the crucial river town ended in Union victory. Thousands of lives had been spent to achieve the result. As Lincoln noted, “The Father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea….” The Mississippi was entirely in Federal hands, cutting the Confederacy in two, severely restricting the Confederate ability to wage war. This was, perhaps, the most important strategic victory of the war.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led the Union assault on Fort Wagner, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, writing the most famous chapter not only in the history of that regiment, but for all African American soldiers in the American Civil War. The bravery of the 54th Massachusetts was but the first of many stories of African Americans fighting for their country and their freedom in the Civil War. The story of the 54th Massachusetts helped to inspire nearly 200,000 other African Americans to join the Union ranks during the war.
The story of the 54th itself, however, began several months before Fort Wagner, when in January 1863, the War Department and Massachusetts Governor John Andrew requested Captain Robert Gould Shaw to leave his position in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry to accept the colonelcy for the new 54th Massachusetts, a regiment composed of free blacks. The officers in the regiment would be white, but the soldiers would be African Americans fighting for their freedom. Writing to Shaw’s father Francis, Andrew passed the following message to the young officer:
Despite initially declining, Shaw did accept the post, and in February 1863, went to work of creating the regiment. In February and March of 1863, the regiment was recruited from across the North. Despite being a Massachusetts regiment, there were companies in the 54th from New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Elmira, and Nantucket. By April 30, when the regiment was training, it numbered 950 men armed with Enfield rifles. On May 18, the regiment was presented with its colors. One flag featured a blue field beset with a white cross and the words, “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” latin for “By this sign you shall conquer”, alluding back to the victorious of Constantine during the Roman Empire. That day, Governor Andrew spoke to the men, framing the importance of their work in the context of history:
I am about to organize in Massachusetts a Colored Regiment as part of the volunteer quota of this State—the commissioned officers to be white men. I have today written your father expressing to him my sense of the importance of this undertaking, and requesting him to forward to you this letter, in which I offer to you the Commission of Colonel over it. The Lieutenant Colonelcy I have offered to Captain Hallowell of the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment. It is important to the organization of this regiment that I should receive your reply to this offer at the earliest day consistent with your ability to arrive at a deliberate conclusion on the subject.
Respectfully and very truly yours,
John A. Andrew
“These men, sir, have now, in the Providence of God, given to them an opportunity which, while it is personal to themselves, is still an opportunity for a whole race of men. With arms possessed of might to strike a blow, they have found breathed into their hearts an inspiration of devoted patriotism and regard for their bretheren of their own color, which has inspired them with a purpose to nerve that arm, that it may strike a blow which, while it shall help to raise aloft their country’s flag—their country’s flag, now, as well as ours—by striking down the foes which oppose it, strikes also the last shackle which binds the limbs of the bondmen in the Rebel States.
“I know not… when, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you….
“Whatever fortune may betide you, we know from the past that all will be done for the honor of the cause, for the protection of the flag, for the defence of the right, for the glory of your country…”Two weeks later, the 54th departed for the South and for war.
For several weeks, the 54th was used for manual labor projects. After that, they participated in a few foraging expeditions, including one which infamously led to the burning of Darien, Georgia, under the orders of Colonel James Montgomery. After Colonel Shaw wrote to Brigadier General George Strong on July 6 to ask permission to fight, the regiment was brought to Morris Island. On July 16, during an expedition on nearby James Island, the 54th had its first taste of combat. On July 18, the 54th, along with the rest of Brigadier General George Strong’s brigade, was to be used as an assault force against Fort Wagner.
For several hours that day, the U.S. navy bombarded the fort with a heavy cannonade. Contrary to the depiction in the popular 1989 movie Glory, the 54th was selected to lead the column that day. According to General Truman Seymour, commanding the assault, “It was believed that the Fifty-fourth was in every respect as efficient as anybody of men… It was one of the strongest and best officered, there seemed to be no good reason why it should not be selected for this advance. This point was decided by General Strong and myself.”
Once the bombardment ended at 7 pm that evening, Shaw stepped forward and told the men, “I shall go in advance with the National flag. You will keep the State flag with you; it will give the men something to rally around. We shall take the fort or die there! Good Bye!” A few hours earlier, when the regiment was in transport from James Island to Morris Island to take part in the assault, Shaw remarked to one of his lieutenants that he had a premonition concerning his death: “If I could only live a few weeks longer with my wife, and be at home a little while, I might die happy, but it cannot be. I do not believe I will live through our next fight.”
When the men stepped off that day, the 54th Massachusetts was leading the way across a narrow stretch of beach leading up to the fort. After 200 yards, the batteries from Wagner began pelting the 54th with shot and shell; at this point Shaw ordered the regiment into a “double quick” advance. As Sergeant Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, later recalled: “…not a man flinched although it was a trying time. Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again.” Lt. Richard Jewett remembered the Confederate fire pouring into the Federal ranks as well, noting, “such a murderous fire I hope never to see again. It mowed down the ranks like grass before a scythe.”
Once the regiment approached the fort, they plunged through pools of water and embankments around the fort and began clambering up the walls. Once through the moat around the fort, Shaw surged forward, leading his men onward. The 25 year old colonel, who was married just 2 months earlier on May 2, with the eyes of the nation upon him, leading free African Americans into the heart of slavery and secession, proclaimed, “Come on, men! Follow me!” Shaw was shot directly in the chest, and fell dead in front of his regiment.
Corporal Gooding of the 54th Massachusetts later remembered the moment: “When the men saw their gallant leader fall, they made a desperate effort to get him out, but they were either shot down, or reeled in the ditch below.”
The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts struggled to seize the fort and follow upon the example of their gallant leader, but the task proved to be too much. The white regiments which followed them along failed in the task as well, taking heavy losses in the assault. When the 54th fell from the fort, men regathered near the regimental flag, which had been saved by Sergeant William Carney. Despite being wounded in the hip, Carney grabbed the American flag to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands. Carney exhorted his superiors for permission to make the charge again, but was ordered to stay put along with the other survivors from the regiment. One of the surviving regimental officers told Carney, “Sergeant, you have done enough; you are badly wounded, you had better keep quiet.” Carney responded as any true American soldier would: “I have only done my duty, the old flag never touched the ground.” Sergeant Carney became the first African American soldier to win the Medal of Honor for his actions.
The assault of the 54th Massachusetts had failed. When the tide began coming in the following morning, many of those lying wounded on the beach were drowned in the Ocean water. Of 600 men present, the 54th Massachusetts had lost 272, nearly 50% casualties. Overall Union losses numbered 1,515 total casualties for the assault of the 18th. The Confederates defending Wagner lost only 174 men.
Soon, newspapers throughout the North carried the story of the 54th Massachusetts. All across the northern states, people read of the bravery of free black men fighting for their freedom where the war that would eventually deliver freedom for over 4 million slaves had begun just two years before. As the Atlantic Monthly wrote, “Through the cannon smoke of that dark night the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see.”
In October 1865, the New York Times published another fitting tribute to the men of the 54th Massachusetts who made the daring assault on Fort Wagner 150 years ago:
“It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand colored troops for whom it was a pioneer would never have been put into the field, or would not have been put in for another year, which would have been equivalent to protracting the war to 1866. But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to white Yankees.”