Re-enactors offer glimpse into history

  • Posted: Sunday, February 20, 2011 12:01 a.m., Updated: Friday, March 23, 2012 6:59 p.m.
Cameron Wescott (right), 9, hands a rifle back to Joshua Washington, a 54th Massachusetts re-enactor taking part Saturday in Charleston County Library’s Magical History Tour at the St. Andrew’s branch in West Ashley.

Nearly 148 years ago in what was its most famous battle, the 54th Massachusetts regiment stormed the walls of Confederate Battery Wagner on Morris Island by crossing a narrow sand beach.

About 650 freed black men volunteered to fight for the Union infantry unit, making it one of the first all-black regiments in the United States. On Saturday, re-enactors honored the soldiers as part of Black History Month.

The day-long event was part of the Charleston County Library's Magical History Tour, sponsored by the Humanities council of South Carolina to celebrate African-American culture. It also included performances by Gullah singers, African drummers and a black history hip-hop group.

The event featured eight re-enactors from the 54th Massachusetts, Company I, Civil War Regiment who camped out on the front lawn of the St. Andrew's regional library decked out in their period uniforms and armaments. They spoke with several dozen visitors about the 54th's role in the Civil War and in African- American history.

"What we're trying to do is to educate our white brothers and sisters on the history of the black soldiers," re-enactor James Brown said. "What they did enabled me to be here."

Just two days before the big battle, the 54th lost 14 men killed in a skirmish on Sol Legare Island, with 29 more soldiers wounded or missing. Then on July 18, 1863, at the Fort Wagner face-off, the 54th suffered even more casualties, including the death of their white commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, as confederate troops held strong and repulsed the attack. The unit's story is retold in the Hollywood movie "Glory."

Out of the attacks, however, came the nation's earliest awarding of a Congressional Medal of Honor to a black recipient. William H. Carney, the regiment's standard bearer, was shot many times but dragged himself to safety and still upheld the U.S. flag.

"I'm glad to be a descendant of those brave souls that fought for my freedom and are now allowing me to tell their story," Brown said.

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