Battle of Fort Wagner, 11 and 18 July 1863

Battle of Fort Wagner, 11 and 18 July 1863

Battle of Fort Wagner, 11 and 18 July 1863

Fort Wagner was an important part of the defences of Charleston, South Carolina, built after the start of the American Civil War. It commanded one approach into Charleston Harbour, as well as providing protection for Fort Sumner. If it fell into Union hands, then it would provide a perfect base for the bombardment of that fort, and dramatically weaken the Confederate grip on South Carolina.

Unfortunately for any attacker, Fort Wagner was well situated on the northern tip of Morris Island, protected by the sea to the east and a swamp to the west. The only possible line of attack was from the south, straight into the teeth of the Confederate guns. At the start of July the fort had a garrison of 1,352 men, commanded by Brigadier-General William Taliaferro.

July 1863 saw a determined Union attack on Charleston. New army and navy commanders, determined to make their mark, decided to start with the capture of Fort Wagner. At the start of July they landed at the south end of Morris Island, and prepared for an assault.

The first attack went in on 11 July. One brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General George C. Strong, launched an attack that reached the parapet of the fort before being forced back with heavy losses (339 Union losses compared to only 12 Confederate). If the attack had been abandoned at this point then it would almost forgotten. However, a second attack was ordered, and it was this attack that made a longer term impact.

The reason for that impact was the selection of the 54th Massachusetts regiment to lead the attack. This regiment was the North’s crack black unit, but it had not yet been involved in a major battle. The attack on Fort Wagner would be its first real test.

In the gap between assaults, the Confederate garrison was reinforced until it was 1,785 strong. The Union attack would be made by two brigades – Strong’s and Haldimand S. Putnam’s. The 54th Massachusetts, under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, joined Strong’s brigade after the first attack.

The attack on 18 July was no more successful than that on the eleventh. Despite a preliminary bombardment by twenty-six guns and ten siege mortars, the Confederate defences held. The 54th managed to reach the parapet of the fort, even maintaining their position for an hour before being pushed back with 25% casualties, the same ratio suffered by the entire attacking force. The Union attackers lost 1,515 men (246 dead, 880 wounded and 389 missing) out of a total of 5,264, compared to a confederate total of only 174 (36 dead, 133 wounded and 5 missing). Colonel Shaw was amongst the Union dead.

His regiment had amply proved its worth. Their attack on Fort Wagner was compared to Bunker Hill by one northern newspaper, and provided President Lincoln with the perfect background for the defence of the Emancipation Proclamation, still under attack ten months after it had been issued. Lincoln was able to argue that every black man in the U.S. Army who had been freed from slavery reduced the Confederate strength by just as much as it increased the North’s strength, although this argument did not really apply to the 54th Massachusetts, as that regiment had been raised entirely in the north.


Lewis Douglass was a son of Frederick Douglass and a sergeant in the Union army’s Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry. The Fifty-fourth, led by its white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, scion of a prominent Boston family, was an elite black regiment. On July 18, 1863, the Fifty-fourth mounted a brave but hopeless attack against Fort Wagner, which guarded Charleston Harbor. Shaw and almost half the regiment were killed. African Americans had already proven themselves in Civil War battles, but the battle at Fort Wagner turned the public’s attention to the heroism of black soldiers. In this letter to the woman he later married, Douglass, still unaware of the dimensions of his regiment’s losses, described the battle.

MORRIS ISLAND. S. C. July 20

MY DEAR AMELIA: I have been in two fights, and am unhurt. I am about to go in another I believe to-night. Our men fought well on both occasions. The last was desperate we charged that terrible battery on Morris Island known as Fort Wagoner, and were repulsed with a loss of 3 killed and wounded. I escaped unhurt from amidst that perfect hail of shot and shell. It was terrible. I need not particularize the papers will give a better than I have time to give. My thoughts are with you often, you are as dear as ever, be good enough to remember it as I no doubt you will. As I said before we are on the eve of another fight and I am very busy and have just snatched a moment to write you. I must necessarily be brief. Should I fall in the next fight killed or wounded I hope to fall with my face to the foe.

If I survive I shall write you a long letter. DeForrest of your city is wounded George Washington is missing, Jacob Carter is missing, Chas Reason wounded Chas Whiting, Chas Creamer all wounded. The above are in hospital.

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


Assault of Battery Wagner and death of Robert Gould Shaw

Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and 272 of his troops are killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina. Shaw was commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, perhaps the most famous regiment of African American troops during the war.

Fort Wagner stood on Morris Island, guarding the approach to Charleston harbor. It was a massive earthwork, 600 feet wide and made from sand piled 30 feet high. The only approach to the fort was across a narrow stretch of beach bounded by the Atlantic on one side and a swampy marshland on the other. Union General Quincy Gillmore headed an operation in July 1863 to take the island and seal the approach to Charleston.

Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts were chosen to lead the attack of July 18. Shaw was the scion of an abolitionist family and a veteran of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley and Antietam campaigns. The regiment included two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the grandson of author and poet Sojourner Truth.

Union artillery battered Fort Wagner all day on July 18, but the barrage did little damage to the fort and its garrison. At 7:45 p.m., the attack commenced. Yankee troops had to march 1,200 yards down the beach to the stronghold, facing a hail of bullets from the Confederates. Shaw’s troops and other Union regiments penetrated the walls at two points but did not have sufficient numbers to take the fort. Over 1,500 Union troops fell or were captured to the Confederates’ 222.

Despite the failure, the battle proved that African American forces could not only hold their own but also excel in battle. The experience of Shaw and his regiment was memorialized in the critically acclaimed 1990 movie Glory, starring Mathew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. Washington won an Academy Award for his role in the film.


Black Soldiers Win the Battle of Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863

"The 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina, in 1863," mural at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C.

July 18, 2020

Today was a relatively quiet news day as the nation mourned the loss of Representative John Lewis, so you can ignore this post at will without feeling like you’re going to miss out.

But for those of you who don’t mind a little hist

Company E, 4th US Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln, November 17, 1865 (LOC]

The Battle of Fort Wagner left 30 men of the 54th dead on the field — including Colonel Shaw — and hurt 24 more so badly they would later die from their wounds. Fifteen were captured 52 were missing and presumed dead. Another 149 were wounded. Confederates hoped to dishonor Colonel Shaw when they buried him in a mass grave with his men instead, the family found it fitting.

In 2017, I had the chance to spend an evening in the house where the wounded soldiers of the 54th were taken after the battle.

It is a humbling thing to stand on that street that still looks so much like it did in 1863, and to realize that the men, carried hot and exhausted and bleeding and scared into that house a century and a half before were just people like you and me, who did what they felt they had to in front of Fort Wagner, and then endured the boat ride back to Beaufort, and got carried up these steps, and then lay on their cots in the small, crowded rooms of this house, and hoped that what they had done was worth the horrific cost.

I am not one for ghosts, but I swear you could feel the blood in the floors.

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Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

This illustration shows the Federal attack upon Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Library of Congress

Colonel Robert Shaw (Library of Congress)

Tired, hungry and proud, the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry stood in the light of the setting sun and awaited the call to battle on the evening of July 18, 1863. The air was filled with the rumble of big guns, and the very ground on Morris Island, South Carolina, trembled beneath their feet. The regiment’s baptism of fire had come only two days before, but the memories of that sharp skirmish had already begun to fade in the shadow of the awesome task that now lay before them.

The path that had brought these determined men to the embattled sands of South Carolina had been a long one, born of idealism and fraught with difficulty. That they had succeeded in the face of bigotry and doubt was due in great measure to the colonel who led them. Slight and fair-haired, Robert Gould Shaw appeared even younger than his 25 years. But despite his initial trepidations, the Harvard-educated son of abolitionist parents had assumed the weighty responsibilities of command, and never wavered in his fervent resolve to show friend and foe alike that black soldiers were the fighting equals of their white counterparts.

Suddenly, a mounted general and his staff rode up before the assembled ranks. The officer was handsome and smartly dressed, and grasped the reins of his prancing gray steed with white-gloved hands. Brigadier General George C. Strong pointed down the stretch of sand to the sinister hump of a Confederate earthwork that loomed amidst the roiling smoke and spitting fire of the guns. Loudly, Strong asked, ‘Is there a man here who thinks himself unable to sleep in that fort tonight?’ ‘No!’ shouted the 54th.

The general called out the bearer of the national colors, and grasped the flag. ‘If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?’ After the briefest of pauses, Shaw stepped forward, and taking a cigar from between his teeth responded, ‘I will.’ The colonel’s pledge elicited what Adjutant Garth Wilkinson James later described as ‘the deafening cheers of this mighty host of men, about to plunge themselves into the fiery vortex of hell:’

The moment of trial for the 54th Massachusetts had come about through the appointment of a new Union commander, the then Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, who had taken charge of the Department of the South on June 11, 1863, replacing the querulous and unpopular Maj. Gen. David Hunter. Stocky and balding, the 38-year- old Gillmore had stood first in the West Point class of 1849, and had gone on to make a name for himself as a talented and intellectually inclined officer of engineers. His successful siege of Confederate Fort Pulaski early in the war had secured the water approaches to Savannah, Ga., and had won Gillmore wide acclaim. The victory had also fueled his considerable ambition.

From the moment of his arrival in the department, Gillmore had set his sights on the capture of Charleston, S.C. To many Northern eyes, Charleston was the very bastion of the Southern cause-the birthplace of the rebellion, from which the first shots had been fired at the Union flag. Indeed, one of the most formidable of Charleston’s defenses was Fort Sumter, the battered island fortress whose capture had precipitated the war itself. Moreover, the commander of Charleston’s 6,000-man defense force was none other than General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the engineer officer turned Confederate leader whose forces had compelled Sumter’s garrison to surrender two years before.

Gillmore viewed the reduction of Charleston as a logical sequence of strategic events that would bring an ever increasing rain of naval and artillery fire to bear on the city and its fortifications. Working closely with Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren’s Federal fleet, Gillmore would seize Morris Island, whose low-lying sands commanded the defenses of the inner harbor. From Cumming’s Point on the island’s northern tip, Federal guns could reduce Fort Sumter, which had long prevented Federal ships from gaining access to the harbor. In order to get to Cumming’s Point, Gillmore’s 11,000 troops would first have to capture Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg, the Rebel fortifications that guarded the upper third of Morris Island.

The first part of Gillmore’s strategy went entirely according to plan. In the early morning hours of July 10, Strong’s brigade launched a surprise amphibious landing on the southern end of Morris Island. By late afternoon, the intrepid Strong had routed the island’s defenders back to their strongholds at Wagner and Gregg. Strong’s men took 150 prisoners, a dozen guns and five flags, and may well have overrun Fort Wagner itself, had Gillmore not been satisfied to rest on his laurels that day.

The Confederates had time to prepare for the assault that followed on July 11, and despite Strong’s personal initiative and the gallantry of his leading regiment, the 7th Connecticut, the Southern garrison was able to repulse the onslaught. Only 12 Confederates were killed or wounded, while the failed attack cost the Union 330 men. As more Union forces arrived on Morris Island, Gillmore pondered his next move.

Originally constructed as a battery, Wagner had grown into a fully enclosed fort. Named for slain South Carolina Lt. Col. Thomas M. Wagner, the work measured 250 by 100 yards, and spanned the southern neck of Cumming’s Point from the Atlantic on the east to an impassable swamp on the west. Its sloping sand and earthen parapets rose 30 feet above the level beach and were bolstered by palmetto logs and sandbags. Fourteen cannons bristled from its embrasures, the largest a 10-inch Columbiad that fired a 128-pound shell. Wagner’s huge bombproof, its beamed ceiling topped with 10 feet of sand, was capable of sheltering nearly 1,000 of the fort’s 1,700-man garrison. The fort’s land face, from whence any Union assault must come, was screened by a water-filled ditch, 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Buried land mines and razor-sharp palmetto stakes provided additional obstacles to an attacking force.

Eleven hours into the unprecedented land and sea bombardment, Gillmore had every reason to expect that a determined assault would carry the battered enemy earthwork. Gillmore’s chief subordinate, Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, shared his commander’s confidence. Seymour had formed a part of the Regular Army garrison that surrendered Fort Sumter at the start of the war, and eagerly anticipated the day when Sumter-and rebellious Charleston-would again be in Federal hands. Strong, whose brigade would spearhead the charge, was won over by Seymour’s zeal. But not every subordinate was so sure of success. Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam, like Strong a graduate of the West Point class of 1857, would lead a four-regiment brigade in the second wave of the assault. ‘We are all going into Wagner like a flock of sheep,’ Putnam told his officers. ‘Seymour is a devil of a fellow for dash:’

Gillmore had launched his initial assault on Fort Wagner without artillery support. Determined not to repeat his mistake, he decided to precede a second effort with one of the heaviest cannonades of the war to date. The fort would be pulverized not only by entrenched land batteries, but by the guns of the Federal fleet, a formidable armada that included the USS New Ironsides, a veritable floating gun platform sheathed in iron. The shelling would commence on the morning of July 18, 1863.

William B. Taliaferro

Four Federal land batteries opened fire at 8:15 a.m., and soon 11 ships of Dahlgren’s fleet were adding their salvos to the massive bombardment. After covering the fort’s guns with sandbags in hopes of protecting them from the ravages of Yankee shellfire, the bulk of the Confederate troops scurried for the shelter of Wagner’s bombproof. Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro, a 40-year-old Virginian and battle-scarred veteran of Stonewall Jackson’s campaigns, commanded the Confederate garrison. Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver) fully expected the Federals to launch a land assault, and entrusted Lt. Col. P.C. Gaillard’s Charleston Battalion with the dangerous assignment of manning the ramparts during the bombardment. The South Carolinians hunkered down and breasted the iron storm as best they could.

As the afternoon wore on, the tide rose, allowing the New Ironsides and five smaller monitors to close to within 300 yards of the fort. The turreted ironclads were a fearsome sight to Taliaferro they seemed ‘like huge water dogs, their black sides glistening in the sun:’ Naval shells weighing more than 400 pounds hurtled through the air with a terrifying roar that sounded to one Southern defender like ‘an express train.’ Occasionally the iron missiles would skip across the waves like huge pebbles, each smack as loud as a cannon shot. One huge projectile exploded just offshore and showered the fort with a school of dead fish.

Shell after shell burst over and within Fort Wagner’s ramparts, dismounting cannons and blasting wooden barracks and storehouses to splinters. In the words of one Southern officer, the fort was ‘pounded into an almost shapeless mass!’ Although most of the Confederates were safe within Wagner’s massive bombproof, the strain was immense as the structure reeled and shook around them. Taliaferro, would later write: ‘Words cannot depict the thunder, the smoke, the lifted sand and the general havoc the whole island smoked like a furnace and trembled as from an earthquake!’ Waves of sand were blown over the exposed troops of the Charleston Battalion, and Taliaferro himself was buried to the waist while encouraging his beleaguered defenders. But despite the awesome tempest of fire, fatalities were few.

At 2 p.m., the halyards of the fort’s big garrison flag were severed and the banner fluttered to the ground. While four intrepid soldiers struggled to raise the fallen colors, engineer Captain Robert Barnwell planted a regimental battle flag atop the parapet to show the Yankees that the garrison remained defiant. Afternoon gave way to evening, and still the inferno raged. Then, shortly before sunset, the Union fire rose to a crescendo. Shadowy forms could be seen massing on the open beach, and Taliaferro readied his men for imminent attack.

As the light of the setting sun cast a lurid glow through the pall of smoke that hung over Fort Wagner, Shaw formed his black soldiers in the vanguard of the Union attack force. Earlier, Strong had tendered the 54th the dangerous post of honor. ‘You may lead the column,’ the general told Shaw. ‘Your men, I know, are worn out, but do as you choose!’ For Shaw, there had been no possibility of refusing the offer there was simply too much pride at stake.

‘His bearing was composed and graceful,’ Captain Luis Emilio recalled, ‘his cheek had somewhat paled, and the slight twitching of the corners of his mouth plainly showed that the whole cost was counted.’ Shaw deployed his 624 men in column of wings’–five companies in the first line, five behind. The colonel positioned himself beside the Stars and Stripes in the first line, while Lt. Col. Edward N. Hallowell stood with the white colors of Massachusetts in the rear wing. At 7:45 p.m., Shaw raised his sword, and the 54th Massachusetts started down the beach.

The men of the 54th advanced grimly, bayonets fixed and muskets at the right shoulder. The pace was at a quick time, and as the ramparts of Wagner loomed closer, Shaw ordered the men into a jogging double-quick. At a point where the beach narrowed to a width of 100 yards between the Atlantic on the right and the swamp on the left, the orderly ranks began to crowd together, the formation assuming a V-shape, the colonel and the United States flag at its apex. Shaw gave the order to charge, and the bayonets of the front rank were lowered into a bristling wall of steel.

Assault on Battery Wagner - Harper's Weekly

As the Federal assault swept ever closer to the ramparts of Fort Wagner, the day-long bombardment sputtered and died. Quickly, Taliaferro’s gray-clad defenders took their battle stations, artillerists ramming charges down half a dozen guns that had survived the shelling unscathed. The infantry leveled their muskets, and when the Yankees were within 150 yards, Taliaferro gave the order to fire.

‘A sheet of flame’ flashed out, James recalled, ‘followed by a running fire, like electric sparks!’ The blazing muskets and cannons reminded James of the fireworks he had seen illuminating the Arc de Triomphe during a Paris Bastille Day celebration. But the thud of hot lead into human flesh, and the screams of the dying, brought home the terrible reality of what lay before them. With a flourish of his sword, Shaw led his black soldiers into the vortex.

With men falling on all sides, the 54th surged over the sharpened wooden stakes that ringed the fort and through the water-filled ditch. In some places, shelling had filled the moat with sand, while elsewhere the water was knee- to-waist-deep. Hallowell and James were among those who fell wounded before gaining the ramparts, but Shaw kept his feet, clambering up the sandy slope with a knot of determined survivors. As he crested the flaming parapet, Shaw waved his sword, shouted ‘Forward, 54th!’ and then pitched headlong into the sand with three fatal wounds.

Sergeant William Carney was sprinting through the chaos when he saw the man bearing the American flag stumble and fall. Carney threw away his musket, raised the flag, and scrambled up the bullet-swept slope of the fort. A shower of hand grenades leveled the ranks around him, but Carney gained the crest, where it seemed he was the only man left standing. He knelt and gathered the folds of the flag, while the battle raged on all sides.

Unable to breach the defenses, many soldiers began to retreat, while others fired across the ramparts in a pointblank duel with the Charleston Battalion and the 51st North Carolina. Two captains of the 54th fell dead, one across the other, while Sgt. Maj. Lewis Douglass-son of the black abolitionist-had his sword ripped from his side by a canister shot.

As a Confederate later commented, he and his comrades were ‘maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops:’ And indeed, no quarter was given by either side. At one point a Southerner ripped the white Massachusetts banner from its staff, only to have it snatched back in hand-to-hand combat. After the battle, the bloodied flag would be found under a pile of dead men in the ditch.

The 54th Massachusetts had been shattered, but now the rest of Strong’s brigade came charging up to the moat five regiments, each in column of companies, with the 300 men of Colonel John L. Chatfield’s 6th Connecticut in the vanguard.

Chatfield’s leg was shot from under him, and he was crawling rearward when another bullet knocked his sword from his hand. Private Bernard Haffy threw himself between his stricken commander and the hail of bullets, then began dragging Chatfield back down the beach. Many of the Connecticut men fell before reaching the ramparts, but Color Sergeant Gustave De Bonge bore the regimental banner to the crest, followed by more than 100 madly cheering New Englanders. De Bonge planted the flagstaff in the sand, then toppled over dead with a bullet between the eyes. The flag was raised, shot down, then raised again.

As fate would have it, the 6th Connecticut had struck the Confederate earthwork at its weakest point. Demoralized by the long bombardment, the 31st North Carolina had failed to occupy their appointed post in Wagner’s southeast bastion. Taliaferro frantically rounded up more steadfast soldiers, while the 51st North Carolina and the Charleston Battalion poured an oblique fire into the determined Union assailants.

View of Forts Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, evacuated by Confederates, September 6, 1863 Library of Congress

Soldiers of the 48th New York succeeded in following the Connecticut troops up the slopes of the southeast bastion, but few of Strong’s remaining units were able to get that far. Three Confederate howitzers had come into action on the flanks of the attacking forces, and the deadly hail of canister brought the 3rd New Hampshire, 76th Pennsylvania Zouaves and 9th Maine to a bloody standstill atop a ridge of sand just beyond Wagner’s moat. ‘It was almost impossible to pass over that ridge and live five seconds,’ recalled 76th Pennsylvania Colorbearer S.C. Miller.

Strong collared Miller and tried to get the charge moving again. A group of men led by 3rd New Hampshire Colonel John Jackson started forward with the general and the flag, but were mowed down by a salvo of canister shot. Miller survived unscathed, but his flag was riddled. Jackson’s coat was torn from his body, while another of the iron balls ripped through Strong’s thigh-an injury that would ultimately prove fatal. In shock and pain from his wound, Strong gave the reluctant command, ‘Retreat in the best order you can!’

In fact, the leading Union brigade had dissolved in inextricable chaos, some running for the rear, others yelling, fighting and dying in the darkness. ‘The genius of Dante could but faintly portray the horrors of that hell of fire and sulphurous smoke,’ one officer recalled, ‘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!’

It was 8:30 p.m.–more than half an hour after the charge began-before Haldimand Putnam brought the second brigade to Strong’s aid. Furious at the delay, Seymour sent his chief of staff galloping to where Putnam’s troops stood in column on the beach. Putnam claimed that Gillmore had ordered him to wait where he was, but acceded to Seymour’s frantic plea and started his four regiments forward.

Putnam’s 7th New Hampshire, 505 strong, pushed its way through the shaken fugitives of the earlier waves and reached the moat, where, in the words of a survivor, ‘all regimental action ceased, and each action seemed an individual one:’ Private Stephen Smith was clambering down into the ditch when his left thigh was shattered–a compound fracture that left him sprawled on his back atop a dead man, his broken leg pinned beneath his body. Beside him the casualties lay three and four deep, some drowning in the sea water that filled the moat with the rising tide.

The tragedy unfolding on the flaming bastion was now compounded by the actions of the 100th New York Regiment, whose commander, in defiance of orders, had told his men to cap as well as load their pieces. Their ranks savaged by the ensuing holocaust, the New Yorkers poured a ragged volley into a mass of men silhouetted on the ramparts. Caught between two fires, scores of Federals went down, and a cry of rage and anguish rose above the crash of battle. Frantic shouts of ‘Don’t fire on us!’ went unheeded, and some Federals answered the mistaken volleys with shots of their own. Nursing a shattered elbow, 48th New York Private Joseph Hibson scrambled back down the rampart to check the deadly fire of the 100th New York, then returned to the battle in time to seize his regimental colors from a fallen bearer. The staff was shot in half, and Hibson’s injured arm was broken a second time, while fragments from an exploding shell gashed his scalp. Still, the bloodied 20-year-old private was able to save the flag–a deed that would earn him the Medal of Honor.

The last of Putnam’s regiments, the 67th and 62nd Ohio, managed to get another 100 men across the moat and onto the southeast bastion. Then Putnam himself arrived, having been delayed when his horse was shot from under him in the advance. The colonel took charge of the beleaguered force, but was unable to organize a cohesive defense in a chaos in which no two men seemed to be from the same company, let alone the same regiment. In the words of one survivor, the bulletswept bastion was a ‘carnival of death,’ and a ‘hell of terror.’ Another man would never forget the sight of slain Lt. Col. James Green of the 48th New York, whose glassy eyes and smoldering beard were illuminated by the flashes of the guns.

Putnam and his officers sent messengers back through the maelstrom of fire to bring up fresh troops. But Brig. Gen. Thomas Stevenson’s 3rd Brigade never arrived. Seymour had been severely wounded by a canister shot, and Gillmore was increasingly out of touch with the situation. Reinforcements may well have enabled the Federals to carry Wagner, but they were not forthcoming and, sensing victory, the Confederates began to launch counterattacks of their own.

Using the roof of Fort Wagner’s bombproof as a makeshift breastwork, the Federals were able to beat off two attacks by gunning down the Southern officers who led them. But time was clearly running out. Putnam had just turned to Major Lewis Butler of the 67th Ohio and said, ‘We had better get out of this!’ when a bullet blew off the back of the colonel’s head. After a hasty consultation with the surviving officers, Butler began an evacuation of his troops-first the bearers of the precious regimental flags, then every other man and, finally, a last mad dash for safety. Many never got the word and continued to fight until forced to surrender.

William Carney - 54th Massachusetts. Medal of Honor Recipient

The Federal collapse coincided with yet another counterattack by Taliaferro’s garrison, bolstered by fresh troops of the 32nd Georgia, who had been transported to Morris Island under the command of Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood. The Confederates surged over the southeast bastion, killing or capturing every Yankee who remained. By 10:30 p.m., the desperate fight for Fort Wagner was over.

Stevenson’s belated preparations to commit yet a third wave to the charge on Wagner were rendered moot by the crowds of bleeding, powder-stained survivors who blocked his path. Confederate shells continued to sweep the beach, and as the battered remnants retreated, still more men fell victim to the unrelenting fire. Wounded adjutant James of the 54th Massachusetts was being borne from the field when a shell decapitated one of his stretcher bearers. Carney had managed to get the 54th’s colors away from the fort in safety, though he was shot twice in the process. Like Hibson of the 48th New York, Carney’s fidelity to the flag would win him the Medal of Honor.

Daylight revealed the full extent of the Federal disaster. ‘In front of the fort the scene of carnage is indescribable,’ Taliaferro wrote. ‘I have never seen so many dead in the same space.’ At a cost of 36 killed and 145 wounded and missing, Taliaferro garrison had inflicted more than 1,500 casualties on their assailants. The brave soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts had sustained the heaviest loss–281 men, of whom 54 were killed or fatally wounded, and another 48 never accounted for. But the other regiments had paid almost as great a price. The 7th New Hampshire alone counted 77 killed or mortally wounded, 11 of whom were officers.

The Confederates stripped the slain of useful apparel and souvenirs, then piled the dead into mass graves. Shaw was singled out for what the Southerners considered the ultimate insult-by being interred with his fallen black troops.

Gillmore had learned a bloody lesson. Fort Wagner could never be taken by direct assault, but must be gradually besieged, the noose tightened until the Confederate garrison was forced to surrender or evacuate. Nearly two months of grueling siege work finally gained Gillmore his prize, though even then he was denied the full fruits of victory. On the night of September 6, 1863, the defiant Confederate garrison abandoned Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg under cover of darkness, leaving their opponents a heap of sand, and a legacy of valor.


Glory at Battery Wagner

On the evening of July 18, 1863, Sergeant William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Infantry made a decision that would alter his life. As his regiment was leading the assault on the Confederate Battery Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina, the flag-bearer was shot dead. Carney retrieved the flag and attempted to rally his comrades, but then spotted a group of Rebel soldiers heading toward him—when most of his comrades had already either been killed or wounded, or were pinned down under heavy fire.

Carney had few options at that moment: Drop the Stars and Stripes and flee for his life, or wrap the flag around its staff and attempt to escape, even though “Old Glory” would slow him down and make him an easy target. In that split second he resolved that, whatever the price, the Rebels would not get their hands on his regiment’s flag. Though he was wounded three times, in the hip, chest and head, as he struggled back to his lines, he somehow made it through with the colors. For his selfless action, William Carney would become the first African American in U.S. history to earn the nation’s highest combat decoration, the Medal of Honor.

Carney had been born into slavery on February 29, 1840, in Norfolk, Va. Aside from the fact that he attended a secret school at age 14 where he learned to read and write, we know very little about his early years. It’s also not clear how Carney gained his freedom. One account suggests that he and his family were emancipated when their master died. Another maintains that his father escaped to Massachusetts, where he earned enough money to purchase the rest of his family. Still another source has it that young William and his father were both runaways who eventually pooled their resources to buy the other family members. Whatever the circumstances, we do know that the Carneys settled in New Bedford, Mass., then known as “the whaling capital of the world.”

Young William had no problem finding work on the waterfront, eventually signing on as a sailor on whaling ships—though that was not his chosen profession. “I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry,” he wrote. If not for the Civil War, he likely would have followed a much different path. But once the call for black Union soldiers went out, Carney decided, “I could best serve my God by serving my country and my oppressed brothers.”

On February 17, 1863, the 23-yearold former slave “enlisted for the war.” Along with nearly 50 other African Americans from New Bedford, Carney signed up for service in the newly created 54th Volunteer Massachusetts— the brainchild of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, and the first black regiment raised in the North. Much depended upon its success. Many whites believed that men of color could not hold their own on the battlefield. It was therefore essential that the 54th demonstrate fearlessness and bravery in combat if other such regiments were to be raised.

Governor Andrew handpicked the regiment’s commander, Robert Gould Shaw. The 25-year-old son of a socially prominent Boston family, Shaw had already seen his share of fighting, especially at Antietam on September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day’s battle of the war. Shaw was promoted to colonel upon taking command of the 54th. Although Carney left no record of how he felt about his commanding officer, another New Bedford enlistee, James Henry Gooding, expressed enormous respect and fondness for Shaw, indicating that he and the rest of the regiment would have followed their youthful commander anywhere. There was some resentment that Shaw and all of his fellow officers were white, but the men of the 54th appreciated the fact that their leaders held “firm Anti-slavery principles” and had “faith in the capacity of coloured men for military service.”

Such loyalty would prove critical when the 54th went into action. After two months of basic training at Camp Meigs, just outside of Boston, Sergeant Carney and his fellow soldiers were ordered to the Sea Islands off the coast of Charleston. Arriving in late May 1863, the 54th was part of an assault force assembled to capture the port popularly known as “the cradle of secession.” In the previous month, the Union Navy had launched an unsuccessful attack on the city. What the Navy couldn’t accomplish on its own, the Army was now hoping to achieve as a joint effort. Its immediate objective: Battery Wagner—“Fort” to the Union men.

Located on Morris Island, Wagner guarded the southern approach to Charleston Harbor. If that strongpoint was secured by Union forces, a naval fleet could sail into the harbor and seize control of the city.

But securing the battery would be no easy matter. Its main wall was some 630 feet around and 30 feet high, and a wide trench, partly filled with 2 to 3 feet of water, stretched in front of it. Much of Wagner was made of earth barriers and sand-bagged emplacements. It wouldn’t be difficult to climb up to the parapet—the low, protective wall along the top of the fort—unless its defenders were firing artillery and muskets down on the invading force.

To minimize Confederate resistance, Union Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore, commanding the operation, ordered a massive bombardment of the fort for the morning of July 18. The artillery barrage lasted all day, but did little damage. The Confederate defenders found safety in a sunken bombproof shelter within the fort less than 30 of the 1,620-man garrison were killed or wounded in the Union bombardment.

While his men prepared for combat, at command headquarters Shaw was asked whether he wanted his regiment to lead the attack. He intrepidly replied, “Yes”—anxious to prove that his men were as good as any on the battlefield.

Brigadier General George Strong, who commanded the frontline regiments, met with the men of the 54th for a final word of encouragement. Reminding them that he too had Massachusetts roots, he said he hoped they would bring honor to the state and follow him into Battery Wagner. Then he ordered the man holding the Stars and Stripes to step forward. “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?” the general asked. “I will,” Colonel Shaw responded.

The significance of Shaw’s response is difficult for us to fully appreciate today. The Civil War was the last major conflict in which soldiers followed flags into battle. Regimental and national colors served as rallying points for regiments. If the attack fell back, the flags became a directional signal for the retreat. But most important, the flags symbolized the heart and soul of the combat unit.

At 7:45 p.m. on the 18th, the 54th’s 600 men moved out, the lead unit of a Union force composed of some 5,000 troops. When they came within 200 yards of the fort, the Confederates opened up with everything they had. “At that moment,” in the words of Captain Luis F. Emilio, an officer of the Massachusetts regiment, “Wagner became a mound of fire, from which poured a stream of shot and shell…before which men fell in numbers on every side.” The 54th’s response, Emilio recalled proudly, “was to change step to the double-quick, that it might the sooner close with the foe. There had been no stop, pause, or check at any period of the advance, nor was there now. As the swifter pace was taken, and officers sprang to the fore with waving swords barely seen in the darkness, the men closed the gaps, and with set jaws, panting breath, and bowed heads, charged on.”

Somehow Shaw and a handful of survivors made it to the top of the fort. With uplifted sword, Shaw shouted: “Forward, 54th!” and then fell dead, shot through the heart.

Not far away, Sergeant William Carney discovered the body of the regiment’s standard-bearer, with the U.S. flag nearby. “I threw away my gun,” he wrote, “and seized the colors, making my way to the head of the column.” Despite heavy enemy fire, he made it to the top of the fort, found an entry point, and there waved the flag. But after establishing his position, he later explained, “I found myself alone…while the dead and wounded were all around me, lying one upon another. Here I said, ‘I cannot go into the fort alone,’ and so I halted and knelt down, holding the flag in my hand. While there, the muskets, bullets and grape-shot were flying all around me, and as they struck, the sand would fly in my face.”

After about 20 minutes Carney saw a group of Rebels coming straight at him. He wrapped the banner around the staff and made his way down the slope of the fort into the trench, wading through waist-deep water. In the process he became a prime target, but though he was shot in the hip, he never let the flag out of his hands.

When he finally stumbled out of the ditch, sharpshooters were still taking potshots at him and other retreating soldiers. One 100th New York Infantryman offered to carry his flag, but the wounded Carney refused, insisting that he “would not give that flag to any living man except a member of the 54th Mass.” Soon after that a Rebel bullet hit him in the chest, and another grazed his head.

Cheering comrades greeted Carney as he staggered into their midst, and he proudly proclaimed, “The old flag never touched the ground,” before collapsing. Transported to a hospital, he remained unconscious for more than a day.

Carney’s regiment suffered more casualties than any other in the attack. Of the 600 men in the 54th, well over 40 percent—256 to be precise—were killed, wounded or missing after the assault. Though the Union offensive on Wagner had failed, few could deny the bravery of the black combatants. “I have changed my opinion of the negroes as soldiers, since they showed themselves so efficient at the storming of Fort Wagner,” affirmed one Union officer.

Over the next two years or so, thousands of men of color entered the Union Army—a direct result of the black soldiers who fought so valiantly in July 1863. As The New York Times editor reminded readers: “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….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.”

Four of the 54th’s men, including Carney, were awarded Gillmore Medals, named after the general who commanded the assault on Wagner. Several months after the presentation, Carney posed for a photograph holding the flag he had saved.

Discharged on June 30, 1864, Carney returned to New Bedford. But his heroism was not forgotten. Some believed that Carney deserved greater distinction, namely the Medal of Honor—first authorized by Congress for members of the U.S. Army on July 12, 1862, a little more than a year after the fighting began.

Originally intended “to improve the efficiency” of Union forces during the Civil War, the medal became a permanent fixture in 1863. By war’s end, nearly 500 Medals of Honor had been awarded. Some nominees received their medals long after the war ended due to procedural red tape and vague qualification guidelines.

In Carney’s case, it would take nearly four decades before he finally got his medal, on May 23, 1900. By that time other African Americans had already received the decoration, but since Carney’s actions dated back to July 18, 1863, predating heroic acts by all other black honorees, he is regarded as the first man of color in U.S. history to earn the Medal of Honor.

Carney’s postwar life was hardly remarkable. On October 11, 1865, he married Susannah Williams of New Bedford, and they had one child, Clara. He worked in a series of jobs until he received the Medal of Honor, when he became messenger at the Massachusetts Statehouse, an honorary post that he held until his death on December 8, 1908, at age 68.

Following his death all flags in Massachusetts were lowered to half-mast. That gracious tribute had never before been paid to a private citizen and an African American.

New Bedford residents named a school after him, Sgt. William H. Carney Academy. And he is immortalized as one of the soldiers on Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ famous monument at Bos ton Common honoring the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Not far from the monument is Boston’s Memorial Hall, where the “old flag” that William Carney had risked his life for still hangs.

Gerald S. Henig co-authored with Eric Niderost A Nation Transformed: How the Civil War Changed America Forever.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.


Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

Tired, hungry and proud, the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry stood in the light of the setting sun and awaited the call to battle on the evening of July 18, 1863. The air was filled with the rumble of big guns, and the very ground on Morris Island, South Carolina, trembled beneath their feet. The regiment’s baptism of fire had come only two days before, but the memories of that sharp skirmish had already begun to fade in the shadow of the awesome task that now lay before them.

The path that had brought these determined men to the embattled sands of South Carolina had been a long one, born of idealism and fraught with difficulty. That they had succeeded in the face of bigotry and doubt was due in great measure to the colonel who led them. Slight and fair-haired, Robert Gould Shaw appeared even younger than his 25 years. But despite his initial trepidations, the Harvard-educated son of abolitionist parents had assumed the weighty responsibilities of command, and never wavered in his fervent resolve to show friend and foe alike that black soldiers were the fighting equals of their white counterparts.

Suddenly, a mounted general and his staff rode up before the assembled ranks. The officer was handsome and smartly dressed, and grasped the reins of his prancing gray steed with white-gloved hands. Brigadier General George C. Strong pointed down the stretch of sand to the sinister hump of a Confederate earthwork that loomed amidst the roiling smoke and spitting fire of the guns. Loudly, Strong asked, ‘Is there a man here who thinks himself unable to sleep in that fort tonight?’ ‘No!’ shouted the 54th.

The general called out the bearer of the national colors, and grasped the flag. ‘If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?’ After the briefest of pauses, Shaw stepped forward, and taking a cigar from between his teeth responded, ‘I will.’ The colonel’s pledge elicited what Adjutant Garth Wilkinson James later described as ‘the deafening cheers of this mighty host of men, about to plunge themselves into the fiery vortex of hell:’

The moment of trial for the 54th Massachusetts had come about through the appointment of a new Union commander, the then Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, who had taken charge of the Department of the South on June 11, 1863, replacing the querulous and unpopular Maj. Gen. David Hunter. Stocky and balding, the 38-year- old Gillmore had stood first in the West Point class of 1849, and had gone on to make a name for himself as a talented and intellectually inclined officer of engineers. His successful siege of Confederate Fort Pulaski early in the war had secured the water approaches to Savannah, Ga., and had won Gillmore wide acclaim. The victory had also fueled his considerable ambition.

From the moment of his arrival in the department, Gillmore had set his sights on the capture of Charleston, S.C. To many Northern eyes, Charleston was the very bastion of the Southern cause-the birthplace of the rebellion, from which the first shots had been fired at the Union flag. Indeed, one of the most formidable of Charleston’s defenses was Fort Sumter, the battered island fortress whose capture had precipitated the war itself. Moreover, the commander of Charleston’s 6,000-man defense force was none other than General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the engineer officer turned Confederate leader whose forces had compelled Sumter’s garrison to surrender two years before.

Gillmore viewed the reduction of Charleston as a logical sequence of strategic events that would bring an everincreasing rain of naval and artillery fire to bear on the city and its fortifications. Working closely with Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren’s Federal fleet, Gillmore would seize Morris Island, whose low-lying sands commanded the defenses of the inner harbor. From Cumming’s Point on the island’s northern tip, Federal guns could reduce Fort Sumter, which had long prevented Federal ships from gaining access to the harbor. In order to get to Cumming’s Point, Gillmore’s 11,000 troops would first have to capture Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg, the Rebel fortifications that guarded the upper third of Morris Island.

The first part of Gillmore’s strategy went entirely according to plan. In the early morning hours of July 10, Strong’s brigade launched a surprise amphibious landing on the southern end of Morris Island. By late afternoon, the intrepid Strong had routed the island’s defenders back to their strongholds at Wagner and Gregg. Strong’s men took 150 prisoners, a dozen guns and five flags, and may well have overrun Fort Wagner itself, had Gillmore not been satisfied to rest on his laurels that day.

The Confederates had time to prepare for the assault that followed on July 11, and despite Strong’s personal initiative and the gallantry of his leading regiment, the 7th Connecticut, the Southern garrison was able to repulse the onslaught. Only 12 Confederates were killed or wounded, while the failed attack cost the Union 330 men. As more Union forces arrived on Morris Island, Gillmore pondered his next move.

Originally constructed as a battery, Wagner had grown into a fully enclosed fort. Named for slain South Carolina Lt. Col. Thomas M. Wagner, the work measured 250 by 100 yards, and spanned the southern neck of Cumming’s Point from the Atlantic on the east to an impassable swamp on the west. Its sloping sand and earthen parapets rose 30 feet above the level beach and were bolstered by palmetto logs and sandbags. Fourteen cannons bristled from its embrasures, the largest a 10-inch Columbiad that fired a 128-pound shell. Wagner’s huge bombproof, its beamed ceiling topped with 10 feet of sand, was capable of sheltering nearly 1,000 of the fort’s 1,700-man garrison. The fort’s land face, from whence any Union assault must come, was screened by a water-filled ditch, 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Buried land mines and razor-sharp palmetto stakes provided additional obstacles to an attacking force.

Eleven hours into the unprecedented land and sea bombardment, Gillmore had every reason to expect that a determined assault would carry the battered enemy earthwork. Gillmore’s chief subordinate, Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, shared his commander’s confidence. Seymour had formed a part of the Regular Army garrison that surrendered Fort Sumter at the start of the war, and eagerly anticipated the day when Sumter-and rebellious Charleston-would again be in Federal hands. Strong, whose brigade would spearhead the charge, was won over by Seymour’s zeal. But not every subordinate was so sure of success. Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam, like Strong a graduate of the West Point class of 1857, would lead a four-regiment brigade in the second wave of the assault. ‘We are all going into Wagner like a flock of sheep,’ Putnam told his officers. ‘Seymour is a devil of a fellow for dash:’

Gillmore had launched his initial assault on Fort Wagner without artillery support. Determined not to repeat his mistake, he decided to precede a second effort with one of the heaviest cannonades of the war to date. The fort would be pulverized not only by entrenched land batteries, but by the guns of the Federal fleet, a formidable armada that included the USS New Ironsides, a veritable floating gun platform sheathed in iron. The shelling would commence on the morning of July 18, 1863.

Four Federal land batteries opened fire at 8:15 a.m., and soon 11 ships of Dah1gren’s fleet were adding their salvos to the massive bombardment. After covering the fort’s guns with sandbags in hopes of protecting them from the ravages of Yankee shellfire, the bulk of the Confederate troops scurried for the shelter of Wagner’s bombproof. Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro, a 40-year-old Virginian and battle-scarred veteran of Stonewall Jackson’s campaigns, commanded the Confederate garrison. Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver) fully expected the Federals to launch a land assault, and entrusted Lt. Col. P.C. Gaillard’s Charleston Battalion with the dangerous assignment of manning the ramparts during the bombardment. The South Carolinians hunkered down and breasted the iron storm as best they could.

As the afternoon wore on, the tide rose, allowing the New Ironsides and five smaller monitors to close to within 300 yards of the fort. The turreted ironclads were a fearsome sight to Taliaferro they seemed ‘like huge water dogs, their black sides glistening in the sun:’ Naval shells weighing more than 400 pounds hurtled through the air with a terrifying roar that sounded to one Southern defender like ‘an express train.’ Occasionally the iron missiles would skip across the waves like huge pebbles, each smack as loud as a cannon shot. One huge projectile exploded just offshore and showered the fort with a school of dead fish.

Shell after shell burst over and within Fort Wagner’s ramparts, dismounting cannons and blasting wooden barracks and storehouses to splinters. In the words of one Southern officer, the fort was ‘pounded into an almost shapeless mass!’ Although most of the Confederates were safe within Wagner’s massive bombproof, the strain was immense as the structure reeled and shook around them. Taliaferro, would later write: ‘Words cannot depict the thunder, the smoke, the lifted sand and the general havoc the whole island smoked like a furnace and trembled as from an earthquake!’ Waves of sand were blown over the exposed troops of the Charleston Battalion, and Taliaferro himself was buried to the waist while encouraging his beleaguered defenders. But despite the awesome tempest of fire, fatalities were few.

At 2 p.m., the halyards of the fort’s big garrison flag were severed and the banner fluttered to the ground. While four intrepid soldiers struggled to raise the fallen colors, engineer Captain Robert Barnwell planted a regimental battle flag atop the parapet to show the Yankees that the garrison remained defiant. Afternoon gave way to evening, and still the inferno raged. Then, shortly before sunset, the Union fire rose to a crescendo. Shadowy forms could be seen massing on the open beach, and Taliaferro readied his men for imminent attack.

As the light of the setting sun cast a lurid glow through the pall of smoke that hung over Fort Wagner, Shaw formed his black soldiers in the vanguard of the Union attack force. Earlier, Strong had tendered the 54th the dangerous post of honor. ‘You may lead the column,’ the general told Shaw. ‘Your men, I know, are worn out, but do as you choose!’ For Shaw, there had been no possibility of refusing the offerthere was simply too much pride at stake.

‘His bearing was composed and graceful,’ Captain Luis Emilio recalled, ‘his cheek had somewhat paled, and the slight twitching of the corners of his mouth plainly showed that the whole cost was counted.’ Shaw deployed his 624 men in column of wings’–five companies in the first line, five behind. The colonel positioned himself beside the Stars and Stripes in the first line, while Lt. Col. Edward N. Hallowell stood with the white colors of Massachusetts in the rear wing. At 7:45 p.m., Shaw raised his sword, and the 54th Massachusetts started down the beach.

The men of the 54th advanced grimly, bayonets fixed and muskets at the right shoulder. The pace was at a quick time, and as the ramparts of Wagner loomed closer, Shaw ordered the men into a jogging double-quick. At a point where the beach narrowed to a width of 100 yards between the Atlantic on the right and the swamp on the left, the orderly ranks began to crowd together, the formation assuming a V-shape, the colonel and the United States flag at its apex. Shaw gave the order to charge, and the bayonets of the front rank were lowered into a bristling wall of steel.

As the Federal assault swept ever closer to the ramparts of Fort Wagner, the day-long bombardment sputtered and died. Quickly, Taliaferro’s gray-clad defenders took their battle stations, artillerists ramming charges down half a dozen guns that had survived the shelling unscathed. The infantry leveled their muskets, and when the Yankees were within 150 yards, Taliaferro gave the order to fire.

‘A sheet of flame’ flashed out, James recalled, ‘followed by a running fire, like electric sparks!’ The blazing muskets and cannons reminded James of the fireworks he had seen illuminating the Arc de Triomphe during a Paris Bastille Day celebration. But the thud of hot lead into human flesh, and the screams of the dying, brought home the terrible reality of what lay before them. With a flourish of his sword, Shaw led his black soldiers into the vortex.

With men falling on all sides, the 54th surged over the sharpened wooden stakes that ringed the fort and through the water-filled ditch. In some places, shelling had filled the moat with sand, while elsewhere the water was knee- to-waist-deep. Hallowell and James were among those who fell wounded before gaining the ramparts, but Shaw kept his feet, clambering up the sandy slope with a knot of determined survivors. As he crested the flaming parapet, Shaw waved his sword, shouted ‘Forward, 54th!’ and then pitched headlong into the sand with three fatal wounds.

Sergeant William Carney was sprinting through the chaos when he saw the man bearing the American flag stumble and fall. Carney threw away his musket, raised the flag, and scrambled up the bullet-swept slope of the fort. A shower of hand grenades leveled the ranks around him, but Carney gained the crest, where it seemed he was the only man left standing. He knelt and gathered the folds of the flag, while the battle raged on all sides.

Unable to breach the defenses, many soldiers began to retreat, while others fired across the ramparts in a pointblank duel with the Charleston Battalion and the 51st North Carolina. Two captains of the 54th fell dead, one across the other, while Sgt. Maj. Lewis Douglass-son of the black abolitionist-had his sword ripped from his side by a canister shot.

As a Confederate later commented, he and his comrades were ‘maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops:’ And indeed, no quarter was given by either side. At one point a Southerner ripped the white Massachusetts banner from its staff, only to have it snatched back in hand-to-hand combat. After the battle, the bloodied flag would be found under a pile of dead men in the ditch.

The 54th Massachusetts had been shattered, but now the rest of Strong’s brigade came charging up to the moatfive regiments, each in column of companies, with the 300 men of Colonel John L. Chatfield’s 6th Connecticut in the vanguard.

Chatfield’s leg was shot from under him, and he was crawling rearward when another bullet knocked his sword from his hand. Private Bernard Haffy threw himself between his stricken commander and the hail of bullets, then began dragging Chatfield back down the beach. Many of the Connecticut men fell before reaching the ramparts, but Color Sergeant Gustave De Bonge bore the regimental banner to the crest, followed by more than 100 madly cheering New Englanders. De Bonge planted the flagstaff in the sand, then toppled over dead with a bullet between the eyes. The flag was raised, shot down, then raised again.

As fate would have it, the 6th Connecticut had struck the Confederate earthwork at its weakest point. Demoralized by the long bombardment, the 31st North Carolina had failed to occupy their appointed post in Wagner’s southeast bastion. Taliaferro frantically rounded up more steadfast soldiers, while the 51st North Carolina and the Charleston Battalion poured an oblique fire into the determined Union assailants.

Soldiers of the 48th New York succeeded in following the Connecticut troops up the slopes of the southeast bastion, but few of Strong’s remaining units were able to get that far. Three Confederate howitzers had come into action on the flanks of the attacking forces, and the deadly hail of canister brought the 3rd New Hampshire, 76th Pennsylvania Zouaves and 9th Maine to a bloody standstill atop a ridge of sand just beyond Wagner’s moat. ‘It was almost impossible to pass over that ridge and live five seconds,’ recalled 76th Pennsylvania Colorbearer S.C. Miller.

Strong collared Miller and tried to get the charge moving again. A group of men led by 3rd New Hampshire Colonel John Jackson started forward with the general and the flag, but were mowed down by a salvo of canister shot. Miller survived unscathed, but his flag was riddled. Jackson’s coat was torn from his body, while another of the iron balls ripped through Strong’s thigh-an injury that would ultimately prove fatal. In shock and pain from his wound, Strong gave the reluctant command, ‘Retreat in the best order you can!’

In fact, the leading Union brigade had dissolved in inextricable chaos, some running for the rear, others yelling, fighting and dying in the darkness. ‘The genius of Dante could but faintly portray the horrors of that hell of fire and sulphurous smoke,’ one officer recalled, ‘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!’

It was 8:30 p.m.–more than half an hour after the charge began-before Haldimand Putnam brought the second brigade to Strong’s aid. Furious at the delay, Seymour sent his chief of staff galloping to where Putnam’s troops stood in column on the beach. Putnam claimed that Gillmore had ordered him to wait where he was, but acceded to Seymour’s frantic plea and started his four regiments forward.

Putnam’s 7th New Hampshire, 505 strong, pushed its way through the shaken fugitives of the earlier waves and reached the moat, where, in the words of a survivor, ‘all regimental action ceased, and each action seemed an individual one:’ Private Stephen Smith was clambering down into the ditch when his left thigh was shattered–a compound fracture that left him sprawled on his back atop a dead man, his broken leg pinned beneath his body. Beside him the casualties lay three and four deep, some drowning in the sea water that filled the moat with the rising tide.

The tragedy unfolding on the flaming bastion was now compounded by the actions of the 100th New York Regiment, whose commander, in defiance of orders, had told his men to cap as well as load their pieces. Their ranks savaged by the ensuing holocaust, the New Yorkers poured a ragged volley into a mass of men silhouetted on the ramparts. Caught between two fires, scores of Federals went down, and a cry of rage and anguish rose above the crash of battle. Frantic shouts of ‘Don’t fire on us!’ went unheeded, and some Federals answered the mistaken volleys with shots of their own. Nursing a shattered elbow, 48th New York Private Joseph Hibson scrambled back down the rampart to check the deadly fire of the 100th New York, then returned to the battle in time to seize his regimental colors from a fallen bearer. The staff was shot in half, and Hibson’s injured arm was broken a second time, while fragments from an exploding shell gashed his scalp. Still, the bloodied 20-year-old private was able to save the flag–a deed that would earn him the Medal of Honor.

The last of Putnam’s regiments, the 67th and 62nd Ohio, managed to get another 100 men across the moat and onto the southeast bastion. Then Putnam himself arrived, having been delayed when his horse was shot from under him in the advance. The colonel took charge of the beleaguered force, but was unable to organize a cohesive defense in a chaos in which no two men seemed to be from the same company, let alone the same regiment. In the words of one survivor, the bulletswept bastion was a ‘carnival of death,’ and a ‘hell of terror.’ Another man would never forget the sight of slain Lt. Col. James Green of the 48th New York, whose glassy eyes and smoldering beard were illuminated by the flashes of the guns.

Putnam and his officers sent messengers back through the maelstrom of fire to bring up fresh troops. But Brig. Gen. Thomas Stevenson’s 3rd Brigade never arrived. Seymour had been severely wounded by a canister shot, and Gillmore was increasingly out of touch with the situation. Reinforcements may well have enabled the Federals to carry Wagner, but they were not forthcoming and, sensing victory, the Confederates began to launch counterattacks of their own.

Using the roof of Fort Wagner’s bombproof as a makeshift breastwork, the Federals were able to beat off two attacks by gunning down the Southern officers who led them. But time was clearly running out. Putnam had just turned to Major Lewis Butler of the 67th Ohio and said, ‘We had better get out of this!’ when a bullet blew off the back of the colonel’s head. After a hasty consultation with the surviving officers, Butler began an evacuation of his troops-first the bearers of the precious regimental flags, then every other man and, finally, a last mad dash for safety. Many never got the word and continued to fight until forced to surrender.

The Federal collapse coincided with yet another counterattack by Taliaferro’s garrison, bolstered by fresh troops of the 32nd Georgia, who had been transported to Morris Island under the command of Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood. The Confederates surged over the southeast bastion, killing or capturing every Yankee who remained. By 10:30 p.m., the desperate fight for Fort Wagner was over.

Stevenson’s belated preparations to commit yet a third wave to the charge on Wagner were rendered moot by the crowds of bleeding, powder-stained survivors who blocked his path. Confederate shells continued to sweep the beach, and as the battered remnants retreated, still more men fell victim to the unrelenting fire. Wounded adjutant James of the 54th Massachusetts was being borne from the field when a shell decapitated one of his stretcher bearers. Carney had managed to get the 54th’s colors away from the fort in safety, though he was shot twice in the process. Like Hibson of the 48th New York, Carney’s fidelity to the flag would win him the Medal of Honor.

Daylight revealed the full extent of the Federal disaster. ‘In front of the fort the scene of carnage is indescribable,’ Taliaferro wrote. ‘I have never seen so many dead in the same space.’ At a cost of 36 killed and 145 wounded and missing, Taliaferro garrison had inflicted more than 1,500 casualties on their assailants. The brave soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts had sustained the heaviest loss� men, of whom 54 were killed or fatally wounded, and another 48 never accounted for. But the other regiments had paid almost as great a price. The 7th New Hampshire alone counted 77 killed or mortally wounded, 11 of whom were officers.

The Confederates stripped the slain of useful apparel and souvenirs, then piled the dead into mass graves. Shaw was singled out for what the Southerners considered the ultimate insult-by being interred with his fallen black troops.

Gillmore had learned a bloody lesson. Fort Wagner could never be taken by direct assault, but must be gradually besieged, the noose tightened until the Confederate garrison was forced to surrender or evacuate. Nearly two months of grueling siege work finally gained Gillmore his prize, though even then he was denied the full fruits of victory. On the night of September 6, 1863, the defiant Confederate garrison abandoned Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg under cover of darkness, leaving their opponents a heap of sand, and a legacy of valor.

This article was written by Brian C. Pohanka and originally appeared in the September 1991 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.

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On the March to Fort Wagner

A pension request submitted by Robert John Simmons' mother, Margaret.

The National Archives at Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C. Record Group Title: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773 - 2007 RG #: 15 Series Title: U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 Series #: T288.

Upon reading the text of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts moved swiftly to turn part of this proclamation into reality: raising an all Black regiment to fight in the Civil War. The Proclamation declared all people enslaved in lands held by the Confederates to be free, but also authorized Black men to be enlisted into the armed services for the United States. Governor Andrew secured permission from the War Department to form the 54 th Massachusetts (54 th MA) Regiment, which became the first federally recognized Black regiment from the North to fight in the Civil War. The 54 th MA initially filled with men from in and around Boston, but others from all over the world soon joined, including Robert John Simmons.

Born in Bermuda around 1837 to Joseph and Margaret, Robert enlisted as a Private in the 54 th . Abolitionist William Wells Brown, author of The Negro in the American Rebellion, considered Simmons an impressive individual, calling him “a young man of more than ordinary ability.” Wells Brown also introduced Simmons to Francis George Shaw, father of Robert Gould Shaw, who thought that Simmons “would make a valuable soldier.” 1

Listed as a clerk in his previous job, Simmons soon earned a promotion to the rank of 1 st Sergeant. Simmons' clear handwriting likely played a factor in his promotion. Reporting to Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts, Simmons would drill with the 54 th MA and then traveled to South Carolina with the rest of the men in anticipation for battle. 2

We do not know what motivated Simmons to enlist, but many soldiers did so to support their families financially. Simmons had no children of his own, but his sister Susan Reed had two children living in New York with his mother, Margaret. As Simmons prepared to take part in his first battle in July 1863, little did he know his family in New York had to fight for their own survival. Tensions had been rising in New York City for weeks after Congress passed the Enrollment Act, which established the first draft in the United States. The Act required most men between the ages of 20 and 45 to register for the military and exempted African Americans from the draft. Poorer, working, and middle-class men, new citizens, and immigrants felt they bore the brunt of this new law as a provision of the Act allowed wealthy men to enroll substitutes for $300 (adjusted for inflation would be over $7000 today). Though the first draft pull went smoothly on the 11th of July, two days later emotions exploded on the streets of Manhattan for the second draft pull. 3

During the morning of July 13, hundreds of New Yorkers spilled into the streets and began attacking people and buildings. They targeted government buildings, homes, and Black New Yorkers. Margaret took the two children out of the house, hoping to get to safety, while Susan Reed went to return laundered clothing to clients so it would not get stolen or destroyed. Unfortunately, Joseph Reed, the eldest, became separated from her and the crowd soon began to savagely beat him. A firefighter attempted to break through the crowd to save the 7-year-old but could not help in time. Joseph Reed died of his wounds on July 14, 1863. 4

Four days later, Robert Simmons sat down and penned a letter without knowing any of this. We do not know the letter’s intended recipient. Simmons wrote, “We are on the march to Fort Wagner, to storm it. We have just completed our successful retreat from James Island.” He described his experience in his first battle, “The bullets fairly rained around us when I got there the poor fellows were falling down around me, with painful groans.” While many sustained injuries, including his friend 1 st Lieutenant Peter Vogelsang, Simmons escaped unharmed. 5

Part of Robert John Simmons' Service Records, September and October 1864. The handwritten text reads: "Dropped from the rolls August 30/63 as missing in action in the attack on Fort Wagner. Retained on these rolls because the information concerning him is uncertain."

Unfortunately, Simmons’ luck did not continue. He and the rest of Company B fell into formation as the Second Battle of Fort Wagner began on July 18, 1863. By the end of the attack, Simmons sustained wounds and became a prisoner. Simmons suffered for at least a month before dying in a Charleston, South Carolina jail in August of 1863. Though only with the 54 th MA for a short time, Simmons made a strong impression. Captain Luis Emilio wrote in Brave, Black Regiment that, “First Sergeant Simmons of Company B was the finest-looking soldier in the Fifty-fourth, a brave man and of good education. He was wounded and captured. Taken to Charleston, his bearing impressed even his captors.” 6

For the next few months, Robert Simmons’ records read, “Absent: missing since the assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863." Others suffered the same fate as Simmons in places like Charleston Jail, the Florence Stockage, and Andersonville. Some died of their wounds with their bodies placed in mass graves with no markers. Others such as Isaac Hawkins, survived their time spent in these prisons in spite of hardships and punishments. A year after Robert’s capture, Margaret Simmons filed for a survivor pension from the government. 7 Despite receiving a promotion to 1 st Sergeant, Robert Simmons sadly never received any pay before his capture and death. That same year, Susan Reed gave birth to another son and named him Robert John after her brother, carrying on his legacy. 8


The 54th Massachusetts and the Second Battle of Fort Wagner

In July of 1863, the Union Army began their siege of the fortified Confederate city of Charleston, South Carolina. Redoubts and batteries surrounded the city. The formidable Fort Sumter guarded the entrance to the harbor, while Fort Wagner, located on Morris Island, commanded the southern portion of the harbor. That strategic location on the southern edge, however, also left Fort Wagner relatively vulnerable to Union assault. [1] If captured, Fort Wagner would provide the Union an opportunity to bombard Fort Sumter and provide access into Charleston harbor itself, an important step in securing the city that many saw as the birthplace of the Civil War.

Union forces stormed Morris Island on July 10, 1863. Assisted by a naval bombardment, the troops captured the southern portion of the island, but could not take Fort Wagner when the attack resumed the next day. [2] On July 18, the 54 th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment led a second Union assault against Fort Wagner.

The Second Battle of Fort Wagner served as the 54 th Massachusetts’s trial by fire. The all-Black volunteer regiment first experienced combat only two days prior in a comparatively minor skirmish. [3] The planned assault on Fort Wagner offered the regiment a chance to prove themselves, and their commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, jumped at the opportunity. The 54 th ’s assault on Fort Wagner became the first time the all-Black unit fought alongside White troops. [4] In addition, the 54 th received the honor of leading the charge. [5]

Any regiment approaching the fort would certainly face heavy casualties. Approaching the fort required advancing up a strip of land so narrow only one regiment could attack at a time, preventing Union forces from effectively utilizing their superior numbers. The strip also lacked cover, making any attacking force an easy target for the Confederate soldiers defending Fort Wagner. The fort had artillery positioned to repel such a ground attack, with more artillery support coming from nearby fortifications, including Fort Sumter. The layout of Fort Wagner’s walls caused additional problems, as they allowed the Confederates to catch their attackers in a crossfire, making it difficult for the 54 th to enter the fort. [6]

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To aid in the attack, Union ground artillery and naval guns bombarded Fort Wagner. The barrage lasted six hours, killing 8 and wounding 20 in a garrison of 1,700 Confederate soldiers. Unfortunately, the bombardment failed to damage the fort in any significant way and only served to alert the Confederate forces to the planned assault.

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As a result, the 54 th Massachusetts assaulted an intact barricade, filled with readied Confederate troops. Newspaper correspondents later reported on the battle. One correspondent, writing for the Salem Register, wrote “. the men moved steadily amid a buzz and whirl of shell and solid shot, until within some three hundred yards of the fort. We could notice the ominous silence that preceded the storm for a moment Wagner, Sumter, and Johnson were silent – then bang – zip zip – thud – crack went the most terrific discharges of musketry, grape, canister, solid shot, and every description of ammunition into our ranks, over our ranks, and through our ranks.” [7]

Unable to fire back effectively, the 54 th resolved to take the fort with bayonets. Under heavy fire, they scaled the parapet and forced the battle to shift to hand-to-hand combat. However, it quickly became clear that the 54 th lacked the numbers and momentum to capture Fort Wagner. Rather than completely fall back, the 54 th stayed close, providing covering fire for the other Union troops. After heavy fighting, the supplemental attacks also failed. The 54 th ultimately withdrew with the rest of the Union forces and the regiment stationed themselves in a rifle trench in case of a counterattack. [8]

The counterattack never came. With the fighting over, two companies of the 97 th Pennsylvania rescued as many wounded as they could. Special orders were given to save as many members of the 54 th as possible. Union officers understood that, if captured, the African American men of the 54 th faced far worse treatment than any captured White soldier. [9] The battle devastated the 54 th . Of the six hundred men deployed, over 250 were killed, wounded, or captured, including Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. [10]

The members of the regiment lamented their heavy losses in letters home. One of the troops, Lewis Douglass, son of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, wrote:

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Despite the failure to capture Fort Wagner, the 54 th Massachusetts made a profound impact. Journalists traveling with the army wrote about the assault and their comrades praised them wholeheartedly. General George Strong, a participant in the attack on Fort Wagner, said “…in all these severe tests, which would have tried even veteran troops, they fully met my expectations, for many were killed, wounded, or captured on the walls of the fort.” [12] Even the soldiers defending the Fort noted that the portion of the assault led by the 54 th caused the most destruction. A Confederate officer wrote, “The greater part of our loss was sustained at the beginning of the assault, and in front of the curtain…” [13]

With the loss of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, the Siege of Charleston slowed to a crawl. Union forces kept the fort surrounded for sixty days. The combined pressure of the blockade and constant skirmishing nearby forced the Confederate troops to abandon Fort Wagner. Union forces then occupied the fort, allowing for a sustained bombardment of both Fort Sumter and the city of Charleston.

For the 54 th , the Second Battle of Fort Wagner catapulted them to fame. Storming the walls proved to the doubting nation that African American soldiers could fight. A correspondent of the New York Tribune reported, “It is absurd to say these men did not fight and were not exposed to perhaps the most deadly fire of the war, when so many officers and so many of the rank and file were killed.” [14] Public recognitions of the 54 th ’s bravery during the battle continued long after the war ended. William Harvey Carney received the Medal of Honor for saving the 54 th ’s flag when the color bearer fell. Despite his injuries, Carney protected the flag for the remainder of the battle. The 54 th Massachusetts’ valor at the Battle of Fort Wagner paved the way for more African Americans to enlist. By the end of the war more than 180,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union Army, making up 10% of all Union forces for the duration of the war. Correspondents relayed the 54th Massachusetts’ heroism and devotion, even after their defeat. After visiting wounded members of the 54 th , a writer for the New York Post reported “No man can pass among these sufferers…and not be inspired with the deepest abhorrence of slavery and an unquenchable desire for the freedom of their race.” [15]

Contributed by: Aaron Zack, Park Ranger

Footnotes

[1] Roswell Sabine Ripley, “Correspondence Relating to Fortification of Morris Island and Operations of Engineers. Charleston, S. C., 1863,” South Caroliniana Pamphlet Collection, 1878, https://digital.tcl.sc.edu/digital/collection/sclpam/id/1281.

[2] Luis Fenollosa Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (Boston: The Boston book co., 1891), http://archive.org/details/historyoffiftyfo00emil, 52-53.

[7] ”The 54th at Morris Island,” Salem Register August 3, 1863.

[11] Letter from Lewis Douglass to Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass, July 20, 1863. Transcribed in Freedom’s Journey: African American Voices of the Civil War, ed. Donald Yacovone (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2004), p. 108-9.


First Attempt on Fort Wagner

Supported by four ironclads from Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and Union artillery, Gillmore dispatched Colonel George C. Strong's brigade across Lighthouse Inlet to Morris Island on June 10. Advancing north, Strong's men cleared several Confederate positions and approached Fort Wagner. Spanning the width of the island, Fort Wagner (also known as Battery Wagner) was defended by thirty-foot high sand and earth walls which were reinforced with palmetto logs. These ran from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to a thick swamp and Vincent's Creek in the west.

Manned by a 1,700-man garrison led by Brigadier General William Taliaferro, Fort Wagner mounted fourteen guns and was further defended by a moat studded with spikes which ran along its landward walls. Seeking to maintain his momentum, Strong attacked Fort Wagner on July 11. Moving through thick fog, only a single Connecticut regiment was able to advance. Though they overran a line of enemy rifle pits, they were quickly repulsed with over 300 casualties. Pulling back, Gillmore made preparations for a more substantial assault which would be heavily supported by artillery.


The Defenses of Fort Wagner

[Morris Island, South Carolina. Headquarters of field officer of the trenches. Second parallel] Library of Congress Fort Wagner. Morris Island Library of Congress

Fort Wagner, also known as Battery Wagner, was a sand and earthen fortification located on the northern end of Morris Island outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Fort Wagner covered the southern approach to Charleston Harbor. It was considered by the Union to be one of the toughest beachhead fortifications due to its location near a natural bottleneck that restricted soldiers from engaging the fort en masse.

Fort Wagner was named after the late Lieutenant Colonel Thomas M. Wagner. It was 250 yards in length by 100 yards in width. Fort Wagner’s walls measured a staggering thirty feet and were constructed from sand and dirt. The walls were supported by logs and sandbags lined within the walls and around the walls. The fort had a total of fourteen cannons, with the largest cannon being a 10-inch Columbiad cannon. Surrounding half of the fort was the Atlantic Ocean. On the other half of the fort, there was a ten-foot-wide by five-foot-deep moat filled with water, buried land mines, and abatis (sharpened sticks). Manning the fort were 1,700 men from the 1st South Carolina Artillery, 21st South Carolina Infantry, 31st North Carolina Infantry, 22nd Georgia Infantry, Charleston Battalion, Gist Guard of South Carolina, Mathewes of South Carolina, and the 51st North Carolina Infantry led by Brigadier General William Taliaferro.

Charleston, South Carolina (vicinity). Interior view of Fort Wagner, showing quarters of Federal garrison. (Morris Island) Library of Congress

The defenses of Fort Wagner kept the Confederates comfortably well defended for some months. From early July to September 7, 1863, the Confederates held the fort with relative ease. One of the most well-known assaults on the Fort was the Second Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. The battle involved the 54th Massachusetts, an all-Black regiment that led the assault on the fort. The Union assault amassed 1,515 casualties compared to the Confederate’s mere 174 casualties. General George Crockett Strong and Colonels Robert Gould Shaw, Haldimand Putnam, and John Lyman Chatfield were all killed or mortally wounded in the assault. After the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, the Confederates withstood the siege from the Union Navy and Army until September 7, 1863, when the Confederate forces evacuated the fort, resulting in a costly but important victory for the Union.

The defenses of Fort Wagner foreshadowed modern siege defense tactics used throughout modern history. The fort featured zigzagging lines a feature of modern trenches used in World War I. There were also precursors to modern firearms, such as multi-barreled Requa guns. Requa guns and other firearms produced during the Civil War were early forerunners of automatic firearms that first saw action in World War One and used throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Fort Wagner’s place in the Civil War was more than simply being a fort. It was where the first African American, William Carney, earned the Medal of Honor. It was where one of the first African American infantry regiments was provided with the opportunity to illustrate their bravery and courage in battle. It was where the precursor of modern trench warfare originated, as well as the precursors to modern weaponry, was put to the test.


Watch the video: 54th Massachusetts: The Civil War in Four Minutes