In mid-July 1863, Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, the Union commander leading the attack on Charleston, decided to pound Battery Wagner on Morris Island and Fort Sumter with artillery and make another frontal attack on Wagner. The bombardment went on all week, and then on July 18, 1863, Gillmore determined to send all he had against Wagner.
He chose Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, who had served with Maj. Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter in April 1861, to lead the assault. Seymour asked Brig. Gen. George C. Strong to lead the first attack, and Strong chose the Massachusetts 54th, a black regiment led by white officers, to spearhead the charge. Seymour is alleged to have told Gillmore, “Well, I guess we will let Strong put those dead negroes from Massachusetts in the advance, we may as well get rid of them, one time as another.”
Two sons of Frederick Douglass, the famous African-American abolitionist, were members of the 54th, as was Garth W. James, a brother of the novelist Henry James and the philosopher William James. (Another James brother was a member of the Massachusetts 55th, a sister regiment.) The 54th had been organized in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 by Gov. John A. Andrews of Massachusetts, a zealous abolitionist who urged the then-unpopular idea of the use of black troops. It was to be “a model for all future Colored Regiments.”
The 54th was commanded by Boston Brahmin Robert Gould Shaw, only 25 years old but a battle-seasoned veteran of Cedar Mountain and Antietam. The regiment departed Boston’s flag-draped streets in May, arrived in Hilton Head in June, and arrived on James Island in July. It had just seen fierce action in a small encounter on James Island on July 16, 1863, its first taste of battle. The men marched from James Island to Cole’s Island that night through a terrific thunderstorm and were tired, hot and hungry when they arrived. The next day they were transported to Morris Island amid another thunderstorm.
The 54th led the charge on the night of July 18. Lt. Garth W. James recalled the moment: “General Strong, mounted on a superb gray charger, in full dress, white gloves, a yellow bandanna handkerchief coiled around his neck, approached Colonel Shaw to give the final orders.”
Strong spoke with emotion to the men of the 54th, and pointing at a color-bearer, he asked, “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?”
“I will,” Col. Shaw replied.
“I want you to prove yourselves,” Col. Shaw told his troops the night of the battle. “The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”
Luis F. Emilio later recalled in his history of the regiment:
“To many a gallant man these scenes upon the sands were the last of earth; to the survivors they will be ever present.”
Away to the eastward a heavy sea-fog was gathering, the western sky bright with the reflected light, for the sun had set. Far away thunder mingled with the occasional boom of cannon. The gathering host all about the silent lines stretching away to the rear, the passing of a horseman now and then carrying orders — all was ominous of the impending onslaught. Far and indistinct in front was the now silent earthwork, seamed, scarred, and ploughed with shot, its flag still waving in defiance.
Six thousand Union troops stormed Battery Wagner, some invading the fort itself before being repulsed. Fifteen hundred Union troops, including Col. Shaw, were killed. Two hundred seventy-two men of the 54th were killed or wounded; four officers were killed. Six hundred had charged Wagner. The Confederates believed the casualties were even higher. William H. Carney, a young black private, wrote that “the shot — grape, canister and hand grenades — came in showers, and the columns were leveled.” Carney was to become the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, which he was given for bringing the American flag back from the bloody battlefield after being twice wounded himself.
Iredell Jones, a Confederate lieutenant, recalled, “The dead and wounded were piled up in a ditch together sometimes fifteen in a heap, and they were strewn all over the plain for a distance of three-fourths of a mile. ... Numbers of both white and black were killed on top of our breastworks as well as inside. The Negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a colonel as ever lived. He mounted the breastworks waving his sword, and at the head of his regiment, and he and an orderly sergeant fell dead over the inner crest of the works. The negroes were as fine-looking a set as I ever saw — large, strong, muscular fellows.”
The Confederate defense fought valiantly, courageously and successfully. Confederate Brig. Gen. William B. Taliaferro, commander at Battery Wagner, reported to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard that the Charleston Battalion defended Wagner “with heroic intrepidity never surpassed and maintained their position without flinching during the entire day.”
The ill-planned Union attack utterly failed. Strong’s brigade and Col. Haldiman S. Putnam’s regiments, coming up the beach after the 54th, also failed to take the tough little Confederate battery protecting the city of Charleston from defeat. Harriet Tubman, an eyewitness, described to historian Albert Bushnell a battle that must have been the assault on Wagner: “And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
Robert N. Rosen, a Charleston attorney, is the author of “A Short History of Charleston” and “Confederate Charleston.” He served as president of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historian Trust, which is hosting a presentation on the Battle for Morris Island on Saturday from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at the Dock Street Theatre.