Assault on Fort Wagner, 18 July 1863

Back on May 28, I entered a post about the anniversary of the departure of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from Boston to action in South Carolina. The 54th Massachusetts was one of the first regiments of black soldiers to be organized to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

On this day in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts would take part in its first major action of the Civil War, the attack on Fort Wagner, located on Morris Island, South Carolina. As part of General George C. Strong’s Brigade, the 54th was selected to lead the assault. They would be supported by the four remaining regiments in their Brigade, as well as the four regiments in Col. Haldimend Putnam’s Brigade.

Led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the the 600 men of 54th began their advance on the West face of Fort Wagner, about 240 yards away. When they got within about 150 yards of their objective, Confederate artillery and small arms opened fire on the 54th, tearing holes in their formation. The 54th broke into a charge and briefly carried a portion of the works, but could not maintain their position and a Confederate counter attack drove them from the fort.

Casualties were heavy from the attack. General Strong would took a wound in the thigh from a grape shot round and would die two weeks later from sepsis. Colonel Putnam was killed during the assault. The 54th suffered 247 casualties, about 40% of their strength. Among the killed was Col. Shaw.

Word of the gallant charge and bravery displayed by the 54th Massachusetts convinced President Lincoln to create more black regiments. The movie “Glory” chronicals the 54th Massachusetts through recruiting, training and Fort Wagner assault.

Wartime photo of a company of men from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts. Shaw’s Parents were staunch abolitionists and friends of Frederick Douglass. Shaw was killed just outside Fort Wagner. The Rebel commander of the fort said that Shaw was found with 7 bullet wounds in his body. He was buried in a mass grave with 20 other members of the 54th Massachusetts.

Painting of assault on Fort Wagner, depicting the 54th Massachusetts as it climbs parapet of Fort. Officer clutching his ches in painting is supposed to be Colonel Shaw.
Sergeant William Harvey Carney received the Medal of Honor for grabbing the flag of the 54th Massachusetts from the hands of the dying color sergeant, carrying it to the parapet of the fort and back during the retreat, shouting “Boys, these colors never touched the ground!”.
Both of Frederick Douglass’ sons were members of the 54th Massachusetts. His son Lewis, a Master Sergeant, is pictured above.
Monument to the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Common. Col. Shaw is on horseback.
Re-enactors and descendants of soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts. I took this photo at the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the National Cemetary in Gettysburg.


Boatner, Mark: “ The Civil War Encyclopedia

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

Foote, Shelby: The Civil War, from Fredericksburg to Meridien

Assorted articles from Blue & Gray Magazine and Civil War Times Illustrated among others.

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