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July 18, 1863: Colonel Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Assault Fort Wagner


On July 18, 1863, Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and 272 of his men from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment were killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston South Carolina.

After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, African-Americans had the opportunity to join in the fight for their freedom and serve as soldiers in the Union Army. The following month, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, “issued the Civil War’s first call for black soldiers,” according to history.com. When the 54th Infantry regiment assembled for training camp, more than 1,000 men had volunteered. These volunteers came from many other states including New York, Indiana, and Ohio. It is written on history.com that, “One-quarter of the volunteers came from slave states and the Caribbean.” Among the enlistees were Charles and Lewis Douglass, the sons of the infamous abolitionist Fredrick Douglass.

Governor Andrew selected Robert Gould Shaw to lead the newly formed 54th Massachusetts. Shaw was only 25 years old at the time, but had experience as an officer in battle with his old regiment, the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry.

Robert Gould Shaw. (Photo: civil war.org)

Shaw was in a unique position being entrusted with commanding one of the first regiments of African-American troops in the Union Army. He learned to respect his men and was determined to show that they could fight just as well as anyone.

The 54th was originally assigned to details of little military significance, but on July 16, 1863, Colonel Shaw’s men got their first taste of action in a skirmish with Confederate troops at James Island. Two days later, the 54th Massachusetts was one of the leading units chosen to spearhead the Union’s second assault on Fort Wagner.

An attack on Fort Wagner had previously been attempted on July 10, but was repulsed. This was an imposing military fortification that guarded the approach to the Charleston harbor. History.com describes the fort as, “a massive earthwork, 600 feet wide and made from sand piled 30 feet high.” The Union assault force only had one approach to the fort across a narrow stretch of beach.

A plan displaying the outline of Fort Wagner. (Photo: latinamericanstudies.org)

Union artillery bombarded the fort all day on July 18 to clear the way for the Infantry, but as history.com notes, “the barrage did little damage to the fort and its garrison.” At dusk, Shaw and 600 of his men assembled on a narrow strip of sand. Before the assault began, Colonel Shaw told the soldiers of the 54th, “I want you to prove yourselves.” He said further, “The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

A depiction from the movie Glory of Colonel Shaw and the men of the 54th before they begin their assault on Fort Wagner. (Video: YouTube User- Chancellor of Preußen)

At 7:45 p.m., the attack on Fort Wagner began. Union troops had to march 1,200 yards down the beach to reach the rebel stronghold. Shaw’s troops and other union regiments managed to penetrate the walls of the fort, but they were unable to take control of it. Colonel Shaw was shot in the chest while urging his men forward and died instantly. Of the 600 men of the 54th Massachusetts who followed him into battle, 272 were killed.

The 54th Massachusetts' attack on Fort Wagner as depicted in the movie Glory. Skip to around 1:45 to see the moment when Colonel Shaw is killed. (Video: YouTube User-Chancellor of Preußen)

As a sign of disrespect, Confederate General Johnson Hagood had the bodies of Shaw and his men dumped into a single unmarked trench. While Hagood expected that this would serve as a great dishonor, it had the opposite effect. In the words of Shaw’s father, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a body-guard he has!”

One of the survivors of Fort Wagner from the 54th Massachusetts was Sergeant William Carney. During the attack, Sgt. Carney picked up the American flag after the soldier who was carrying it had been killed. Despite sustaining several gunshot wounds, Carney managed to return to the Union lines with the flag. In the safety of his comrades, he uttered these words, “Boys, I did my only duty. The flag never touched the ground.” On May 23, 1900, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery. Other African-American’s were also issued the Medal of Honor for their valor during the Civil War, but Sgt. Carney’s action at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863 was the first to merit the award.

Sergeant William Carney with his Medal of Honor. (Photo: 54thmass.org)

While Shaw and 272 of his men perished during the attack on Fort Wagner, they left behind a legacy that lives on to this day. The 54th Massachusetts had shown that African-American troops could excel on the battlefield. By the end of the Civil War, nearly 179,000 black men had served in the army. They fought with the same fighting spirit that the 54th displayed on July 18, 1863.

The 54th Massachusetts Memorial on the Boston Common. (Photo: gettysburgdaily.com)

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