BY ROBERT N. ROSEN
Historians now, like contemporaries at the time of the Civil War, disagree about the effectiveness of the famous black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th, which stormed Battery Wagner in Charleston harbor in July 1863.
Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, who led the attack on Wagner, was later investigated by a congressional committee for sending such a relatively small force against a superior entrenched force.
Historian Benjamin Quarles depicted their valor. Milby Burton decried their disorganized retreat.
One contemporary wrote later that “the greater part of them followed their intrepid colonel, bounded over the ditch, mounted the parapet, and planted their flag in the most gallant manner upon the ramparts, where Shaw was shot dead; while the rest were seized with a furious panic, and acted like wild beasts let loose from a menagerie.”
But the losses at Battery Wagner had an impact in the North far out of proportion to its military value.
“Hardly another operation of the war,” Dudley T. Cornish has written in “The Sable Arm,” “received so much publicity or stirred so much comment. Out of it a legend was born. As a result of it Robert Gould Shaw came as close to canonization as a New England Puritan can.”
In death Shaw became a symbol of lost youth; forty poems were written in celebration of his heroism, including those by Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell.
The significance of the charge of the 54th Massachusetts was in demonstrating that African-American troops could and would fight and die for their country.
It was a simple proposition but one which most whites — North and South — did not believe before that battle.
“It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts 54th had faltered when its trial came,” said the New York Tribune, “two hundred thousand troops for whom it was a pioneer would never have put into the field. But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name for the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to the white Yankees.”
Years later the Shaw Memorial Committee defined its mission as being to “commemorate the great event ... by which the title of coloured men as citizen-soldiers was fixed beyond recall.”
Col. Shaw was buried by the Confederates on Morris Island with the dead of his regiment.
Susan Middleton wrote her cousin that she heard from an officer on Morris Island that “our officers refused to let the Yankees have his body, but buried him first in the trench, filling it with negroes, and sent word he should ‘lie with his brethren.’ ”
Emma Holmes had it that Col. Shaw “was buried with eleven negroes over him.”
Northern reaction was indignant, and some insisted that Shaw’s body be buried with more dignity elsewhere, but Col. Shaw’s father wrote General Gillmore that he did not wish his son’s grave disturbed.
“I take the liberty to address you,” Francis Shaw said, “because I am informed that efforts are to be made to recover the body of my son, Colonel Robert Shaw of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, which was buried at Fort Wagner. My object in writing is to say that such efforts are not authorized by me or any of my family, and they are not approved by us. We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen. I shall therefore be much obliged, General, if in case this matter is brought to your cognizance, you will forbid the desecration of my son’s grave, and prevent the disturbance of his remains or those buried with him.”
The state of Massachusetts erected an impressive monument to Colonel Shaw and the men of the Massachusetts 54th, crafted by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It stands on the Boston Common across from the State Capitol. The inscription reads:
“The white officers taking life and honor in their hands. ... The black rank and file volunteered when disaster clouded the Union cause ... faced threatened enslavement if captured ...
“Together they gave to the Nation and the World undying proof that Americans of African descent possess the pride, courage and devotion of the patriot soldier.”
Robert N. Rosen, a Charleston attorney, is the author of “A Short History of Charleston” and “Confederate Charleston.”