“In this formation, as the dusk of evening came on, the regiment advanced at quick time, leading the column. The enemy opened on us a brisk fire, our pace now gradually increasing until it became a run. Soon canister and musketry began to tell on us. With Colonel Shaw leading, the assault was commenced. Exposed to the direct fire of cannon and musketry, and, as the ramparts were mounted, to a like fire on our flanks, the havoc made in our flanks was very great. “
– Brig. Gen. T. Seymour, Commanding U.S. Forces, Morris Island, S.C., Nov. 7, 1863.
This is from the official report of the Union Army’s assault upon Battery, or Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The assault was made on today’s date, July 18 in 1863 —150 years ago. It was very much like all too many assaults made during that long and terrible war; a frontal assault made against a well-fortified position. The attacking troops were cut to pieces. But this attack was different: it was made by the 54’th Massachusetts Regiment. The 54’th was what was then called an “All Colored Unit”. This means that all of it’s enlisted members, all volunteers, were African Americans, some of them free men, some of them recently escaped or freed slaves. But all of them were determined to take weapons in hands, and fight for their own freedom.
Grant Lends His Support to the Arming of African Americans
“I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support, This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heaviest blow yet given the Confederacy.”
– This was from a letter written by General Ulysses Grant to president Lincoln in the summer of 1863, supporting the freeing of slaves wherever they were found in the south, and arming them for use in the Union Army. The General continued:
“By arming the negro we have added a powerful ally, They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weaken him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.”
There had in fact been considerable opposition to the idea of arming black men to fight in the Civil War. Strange as it may now seem, the policy was strongly opposed in most of the north – early in the war. But, in the words of Bruce Catton (above) : “A singular fact about modern war is that it takes charge. Once begun it has to be carried to it’s conclusion, and carrying it there sets in motion events that may be beyond men’s control.” And so it was with the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln maintained throughout that his primary aim was to preserve the Union. And this was indeed what most of those who fought in it had as their cause. Nevertheless, the primary cause of the strife which had been the cause of the succession of the southern states had been the existence of human slavery. Once the war began, as Catton goes on to describe, it became a drive to destroy everything that kept the Confederacy alive; to wreck all that was of value to it’s continued existence. And that meant the permanent confiscation of all southern property – and that meant the freeing of the slaves. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, and it meant effectively the permanent abolition of slavery in the United States for all time to come. This meant that African Americans could and would be employed as armed combatants wherever the Union Army may go.
African American Units Are Formed in the Union Army
And this lead to the formation of black regiments throughout the Union Army. But conditions were not quite the same. Most of the time, such regiments were used for guard duty, and for labor in building roads and camps. And the pay, which for white men at the time was thirteen dollars a month, was for black men only ten dollars. This was an indignity which many of the African American troops refused to accept, and they chose to serve their country and fight for their freedom without any pay at all. And while there was Congressional authorization for the arming of black men to fight, it was allowed only under the leadership of white officers. Many of these officers, seeing the devotion to duty shown by the troops under their command chose to join their men in refusing to accept pay under such degradation. All of this was in spite of the fact that such officers and men faced increased danger from a Declaration by the Confederate government that any officers captured while commanding black soldiers were subject to execution, and any such troops captured would be returned to a state of slavery, even if they had been free men prior to their enlistment. And more often than not, black troops were not permitted to take part in actual combat situations.
The 54’th Massachusetts Regiment, and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Such was not to be the case with the 54’th Massachusetts Regiment which was lead by the son of a prominent Boston Abolitionist, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Lead and trained by Shaw, who fought tirelessly to gain opportunities for his men to prove themselves in combat, the 54’th was given the lead in the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, The fort sat on an island guarding the approaches to Charleston Harbor, and was deemed vital to any Union attempt to capture that key Southern port. Unfortunately, the naval bombardment upon the strong fortifications had done little to soften up the strong southern defenses that had been built there. And the only approach to the fort was through a narrow channel of solid ground separated by the sea on one side and swampy marsh land on the other, Thus when the 54’th lead the assault upon the fort late on this date in 1863, the unit was decimated. The official report by General Seymour continues:
“Upon leaving the ditch for the parapet, they obstinately contested with the bayonet our advance. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the men succeeded in driving the enemy from most of their guns, many following the enemy into the fort. It was here upon the crest of the parapet that Colonel Shaw fell; here fell Captains Russell and Simpkins; here were also most of the officers wounded. The colors of the regiment reached the crest, and were fought for by the enemy; the State flag there torn form it’s staff, but the staff remains with us. Hand grenades were now added to the missiles directed against the men. The fight raged here for about an hour, when compelled to abandon the fort, the men formed a line about seven hundred yards from the fort, under the command of Capt. Luis F. Emilio, — the ninth captain in the line; other captains were either killed or wounded. The regiment then held the front until relieved by the Tenth Connecticut at about two o’clock A.M. of the 19’th. “
The son of the great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who was a Sergeant in the 54’th described the Unit’s action that day in a letter to his wife:
“This regiment has established its reputation as a fighting regiment not a man flinched, though 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, but it was no use we had to retreat, which was a very hazardous undertaking. How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. My Dear girl I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I be killed. Remember if I die I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war. Good Bye to all Write soon Your own loving LEWIS”
The Fame of the 54’th Massachusetts Spreads
Sergeant Douglass was quite correct in his belief that his unit had established it’s reputation, as news of the 54’th’s bravery began to spread, in spite of the fact that immediate public interest was for a time taken up by news of Confederate defeats at the recently concluded Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. As the New York Tribune said to it’s readers:
“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… 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 the white Yankees… To this Massachusetts 54th was set the stupendous task to convince the white race that colored troops would fight, – and not only that they would fight, but that they could be made, in every sense of the word, soldiers.”
Thanks in part to the bravery and devotion displayed by the Massachusetts 54th, by the end of 1863 the Union army had recruited some 50,000 African-Americans – both free blacks and former slaves – into its ranks. By the war’s conclusion in April of 1865 this number had risen to around 186,000, of which 134,111 were recruited in the slave states. African-American troops made up about 10 per cent of the total Union fighting force, and some 3,000 of them died on the battlefield plus many more in the prisoner of war camps, if they made it that far. Overall, one-third of all African-Americans who fought were casualties of the Civil War.
Sergeant Carney, and the Burial of Colonel Shaw.
Decades later, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing the U.S. flag as the flag bearer fell, carrying the flag to the enemy ramparts and back, and saying “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!” While other African-Americans had since been granted the award by the time it was presented to Carney, Carney’s is the earliest action for which the Medal of Honor was awarded to an African-American. Although it was not until a very long time after his heroic action that Sgt. Carney was actually awarded his decoration. And also, it should be noted that these “noble sons of the south” had nothing but anger and disdain for the African American troops who had taken up arms against them in this battle, and they had double that contempt for white officers who had lead them. Thus when the battle was over, all of the bodies of the African Americans who had fallen during the assault on Fort Wagner were thrown together into a common grave. As a sign of their contempt, the Confederates who buried these men threw the body of Colonel Shaw in with his men, instead of burying him separately as would normally have been done with a commissioned officer such as Shaw was. Later, when it came time to rebury the remains of these men in a more permanent place, Col. Shaw’s father asked that no effort be made to distinguish the remains of his son from those of his soldiers. He was proud, and he was certain that his son would have been proud to be buried along with his men. The actions of the 54’th Massachusetts regiment were later dramatized in the movie “Glory” with Matthew Broderick as Col. Shaw, and including Morgan Freeman and Denzel
Washington. The movie, made in 1989 goes a considerable way in showing the courage of the men of the 54’th Massachusetts Regiment, and towards making “..Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been… to the white Yankees…” I urge you all to go and watch this film, and to remember always the name of Fort Wagner, and the 54’th Massachusetts Regiment!
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“Glory” – Directed by Edward Zwick, Freddie Fields Productions/Tri-Star Pictures, 1989.
“The Civil War” – by Bruce Catton, American Heritage Publ. Co. Inc., New York, 1960.
“The Civil War” , Episode 5, “The Universe of Battle; 1863” Prod. by Ken Burns, PBS Home Video, 1990