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The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts at Fort Wagner


On Saturday, July 18, 1863, Brigadier General George C. Strong called upon the bearer of the Stars and Stripes, grasped the flag, and asked the soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?” As Adjutant Garth Wilkinson James later reflected, the regiment’s 25-year-old commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, “took a cigar out of his mouth, and said quietly, ‘I will.'” The men of the Fifty-fourth had just seen their first action on July 16, and although tired and exhausted, the men in blue offered “deafening cheers” as they prepared to “plunge themselves into the fiery vortex of hell,” spearheading an attack against Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina.

Ringed by sharpened wooden stakes and composed of 30-foot high earth, sand filled walls, and defended by 14 heavy artillery pieces and a garrison of approximately 1,700 troops, Fort Wagner had repulsed a Union assault just the previous week. After a day-long bombardment of the fort, Shaw and his regiment, which was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the American Civil War, were granted the honor of leading this renewed Federal attack on the 18th. General Strong asked the men of the Fifty-fourth, “Is there a man here who thinks himself unable to sleep in that fort tonight?” The Fifty-fourth replied with a resounding “No!”

View of Forts Wagner & Gregg on Morris Island, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Shaw gathered his 624 men before they had to advance across 1,200 yards of sand to reach the beach stronghold. “I want you to prove yourselves,” said the colonel. “The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.” At 7:45 p.m., Shaw raised his sword and the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts went forward.

The Fifty-fourth charged headlong into “A sheet of flame” as James described, “followed by a running fire, like electric sparks!” Confederate cannons, muskets, and hand grenades thinned the blue ranks, but the regiment pushed on, surging over the sharp stakes along the perimeter and through a water-filled ditch. As Shaw reached the crest of the parapet, waving his sword and shouting, “Forward, Fifty-fourth,” the young colonel was brought down with three fatal wounds.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. (Photo Credit: massmoments.org)

During the intense battle, several of the 54th’s flag bearers were shot down. As one soldier carrying the American flag was hit and about to collapse, Sergeant William H. Carney, a former slave who had escaped to freedom on the Underground Railroad, threw down his weapon and rescued Old Glory, keeping the flag upright. In the face of punishing enemy fire, Carney suffered several serious gunshot wounds, but he continued to guide the Stars and Stripes forward and planted the flag atop the walls of the fort. Although badly wounded and utterly exhausted, he made it back to Federal lines with Old Glory safely in hand. With the flag saved, Carney reportedly told his comrades, “Boys, I only did my duty; the Old Flag never touched the ground.”

For his incredible gallantry under fire at Fort Wagner, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor, on May 23, 1900. Although Carney had to wait nearly 37 years to claim this distinction, his battle date of July 18, 1863 represents the earliest action for which a black soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Sergeant William H. Carney. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Despite the bravery of the Fifty-fourth and the other nine Union regiments who came up behind them, the outnumbered Confederate garrison at Fort Wagner under Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro could not be overcome. “The genius of Dante could but faintly portray the horrors of that hell of fire and sulphurous smoke,” recounted one officer, “the agonizing shrieks of those wounded from bayonet thrust, or pierced by the bullet of the rifle, or crushed by fragments of exploding shell, sinking to earth a mass of quivering flesh and blood in the agony of horrible death!” The bloody repulse cost the Union more than 1,500 casualties. As cited by Brian C. Pohanka for the American Battlefield Trust, the Fifty-fourth “had sustained the heaviest loss-281 men, of whom 54 were killed or fatally wounded, and another 48 never accounted for.” Fighting from their stout fortress, the Confederates lost approximately 36 killed and 145 wounded and missing.

Although the June 18th attack against Fort Wagner failed, the valor of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts proved to be “a seminal moment in the acceptance of African American soldiers as an effective fighting force,” as noted by the American Battlefield Trust. The Massachusetts Historical Society reports that “the use of black soldiers in the 54th was viewed as a success and opened the way for numerous other black units in the Union Army for the remainder of the war.” African American soldiers and sailors would indeed play a great role in helping the Union achieve final victory in the American Civil War. As President Abraham Lincoln said, “without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the south could not have been won.”

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

American Battlefield Trust: William Carney.

American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Fort Wagner.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.

History.com: "Glory" Regiment Attacks Fort Wagner, 150 Years Ago.

History.com: The 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

Massachusetts Historical Society: 54th Regiment.

National Park Service: African American Civil War Memorial.

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