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NPS History E-LibraryScene in Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Maryland

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers



Although black soldiers at Port Hudson and Milliken's Bend had demonstrated a raw courage and dash that compared with that of the very best white troops, those fights received such scant coverage and occurred at such a great distance from the seat of power that they did not have the impact on the popular mind that many had predicted. Most northerners in and out of the army needed more convincing. The Union assault on Fort Wagner provided just such an opportunity.


Few Civil War regiments attracted the interest of the Northern public as did the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry. It was the brainchild of Massachusetts governor John Andrew and the dream of thousands of blacks and whites throughout the North. Although it was a state volunteer regiment, a majority of the men in the 54th Massachusetts actually came from other states. Prominent African Americans throughout the North worked vigorously to fill its ranks, as the regiment attracted some of the finest young black men the free states had to offer, including two sons of Frederick Douglass.

Its officer corps consisted of outstanding young white men. When Governor Andrew cast around for individuals to command this black regiment, prior military service and "firm anti-slavery principles" were mandatory. To locate these men, Andrew searched the educated antislavery society circles from the prewar years, "which next to the colored race itself have the greatest interest in the success of this experiment." From there he plucked Captain Robert Gould Shaw for its colonel and Ned and Penrose Hallowell as other field officers.


Andrew received permission to form the 54th Massachusetts at the end of January 1863, and from that moment a mass of nearly one thousand black civilians transformed rapidly into a regiment of soldiers. Within a few' months the ranks filled, and by the end of April authorities issued the men Enfield rifled muskets. They trained rigorously just outside Boston, at Readville, and there Andrew presented the regiment with its flags. With the troops in line and dignitaries in attendance, Andrew announced to Colonel Shaw, "I know not, Mr. Commander, when, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you." Ten days later they paraded through Boston as huge crowds lined the streets to cheer. Then they boarded a steamer bound for the South Carolina coastal islands, and by early June they were in the war zone.

Before the attack on Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts had gained limited experience. It participated in a raid on Darien, Georgia, that resulted in the burning of the town. Even though it was an unwilling participant in the conflagration, the affair was an embarrassment for the entire regiment. Shortly afterward, while other Federals slipped ashore at Morris Island in quest of the prized Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts helped to lead a feint on adjacent James Island. When Confederates launched a night attack, men in the 54th Massachusetts held the line long enough for soldiers in the 10th Connecticut Infantry to retreat and for reinforcements to advance to the front. As one of the Connecticut troops penned to his mother, "But for the bravery of three companies of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth (colored), our whole regiment would have been captured. As it was, we had to double-quick in, to avoid being cut off by the rebel cavalry. They fought like heroes."


Meanwhile, Shaw had been scheming to participate in the upcoming fight at Fort Wagner. He wrote to Brigadier General George C. Strong, a West Point graduate from Massachusetts, telling him how much the officers and men desired a prominent role in the campaign against Fort Wagner. When Strong's brigade received the assignment to lead the assault on Fort Wagner, its commander requested the transfer of the 54th Massachusetts, fresh from its outstanding performance on James Island, to head the attack.

Although Strong and the officers and men of the 54th Massachusetts regarded the offer as an honor, division commander Major General Truman Seymour assented to the request for another reason. The black troops were expendable. Speaking to operations commander Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, and overheard by a journalist, Seymour confided, "Well, I guess we will let Strong lead and put those d—d niggers from Massachusetts in the advance; we may as well get rid of them one time as another."


Fort Wagner rested near the northern tip of Morris Island. The bastion was valuable because it protected Battery Gregg, at the very edge of Morris Island and overlooking the entrance to Charleston Harbor. With Battery Gregg in Federal hands, they could shell Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor into capitulation, which would close the harbor completely to Confederate blockade runners and pave the way for an attack on Charleston.

Seventeen hundred troops and seventeen artillery guns defended the fort from all directions. They swept the southern approach superbly. For added insurance, the Confederates had prepared a moat three feet deep just outside the first wall and a rifle pit two hundred yards beyond that.

Early in the evening of July 18, the 54th Massachusetts, composed of 630 officers and men, arrived at Strong's headquarters. For much of the last two days the regiment had been in motion, and the troops had eaten nothing since breakfast. Nevertheless, Strong merely fed them some words of encouragement and pushed them forward.

The plan called for the black troops to strike first, succeeded by regiments from Strong's brigade. In the event these troops did not carry the works, Seymour had two more brigades to throw into the fight, but he viewed them as a precaution. The Federal high command anticipated a swift success. They greatly underestimated the strength of Fort Wagner and the size of its garrison.


Shaw planned to have his regiment attack in column in two waves, five companies across his front. Once they got in position with his right flank on the edge of the surf, approximately one mile from Fort Wagner, he had the men lie down to give other regiments a chance to get in position.

When it appeared that succeeding regiments were nearly in place, Strong rode up to give some parting words. "Don't fire a musket on the way up," he warned, "but go in and bayonet them at their guns." He then asked who was going to carry the regimental flag if the color-bearer fell, and Shaw, removing a cigar from his clenched teeth, replied calmly, "I will," to the delight of the men.

As Strong galloped away, Shaw began to wander up and down the lines and spoke briefly to his troops. In an affectionate tone that surprised the troops, the soft-spoken commander simply called upon the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts that day to "prove themselves as men." Like his troops, Shaw had a fair inkling of the hazards of the attack. Moments earlier, he had divested himself of some personal items to a civilian acquaintance to send to his family in the event of his death.

After a wait that seemed interminable, Shaw cried out, "Boys, are you ready to take that fort?" Shouts of "Yes! Yes!" resounded as they began the fateful advance. Shaw elected to lead the left wing personally and positioned himself next to the regimental flag, while Lieutenant Colonel Ned Hallowell directed the men on the right.

Confederate batteries on adjacent islands opened fire as soon as they observed the advance, but the troops at Fort Wagner waited until the black troops packed tightly into the pocket between the swamp and ocean. Suddenly, powder flashes lit up the wall and Confederate shot and shell tore huge gaps in the Federal columns. "Not a man flinched," wrote survivor Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, "though it was a trying time. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again."

All the while Confederates poured shot and shell into the rushing Federal ranks. Yet the black soldiers pushed on intrepidly. Despite sustaining heavy casualties, they increased speed until they were on a dead ruin. Through the waist-deep ditch the columns swept, and in moments the bluecoats clambered up the outer embankment. Some Confederate troops now came out from their protection and lowered their aim to strike down the black attackers as they mounted the first slope.

In the race for the fort, Shaw swung past the salient in the southeastern corner and drove directly into the center, where Confederates blazed away at the attackers from three directions. Positioned at the head of the assault, he miraculously reached the Rebel works. Witnesses said he had sustained several wounds but refused to yield. As Shaw reached the top, he urged the men forward, sword swirling above his head. A ball then crashed into his chest and toppled him backward dead.


Despite the loss of the regimental commander, the color-bearer planted the flag on the parapet and some black soldiers penetrated into the Confederate works. Thrusting with bayonets and clubbing with rifle butts, Shaw's troops battled the defenders hand-to-hand. They were no match for the superior Confederate numbers. Overwhelmed from three directions, the Federal attackers quickly exhausted their strength and fell back outside the inner wall. There Confederates began dropping hand grenades and lighted shells on the assailants.

On the right, Hallowell went down with a severe groin wound, but a small portion of his men struck the fort in the southeast corner. There some unnerved Rebels abandoned their defenses, and for a moment it seemed that the first assault might succeed. Just as suddenly, though, Confederate reinforcements arrived to drive back the attackers. Had Shaw concentrated on this portion of the Confederate line, the outcome of the battle might have been more in doubt, but the Federals here were too few in number to make a difference.

Nor did Strong's brigade affect the outcome of the battle. His supporting blue columns were too slow in the attack. By the time they arrived on the scene, the Confederates had completely repulsed the assault of the 54th Massachusetts. Their fate was similar to that of Shaw's regiment, without such severe losses.

Those survivors in the 54th Massachusetts who were able to retreat began to fall back across ground littered with scores of their black comrades. The 9th Maine Infantry, whipped into a frenzy in anticipation of the assault, began pouring lead in the direction of the fort and felled "a great many" men in the 54th Massachusetts, according to a black survivor. It took the intervention of some New York troops to check the friendly fire.

Several hundred yards to the rear, a junior captain took over the reigns as temporary regimental commander. All he could do was collect these men and place them in rifle pits where they fired over the bodies of comrades in support of other Union troops who joined the attack.

As night fell, some men in the 54th Massachusetts crawled away or bolted across the open ground and managed to return to Federal lines. One of those men was Sergeant William H. Carney, who snatched the national flag when its bearer fell and planted it on the Confederate works. There be sustained a wound in each leg, one in the chest, and another in the right arm, yet Carney managed to carry the flag back in retreat.



Others who refused to run the gauntlet or had suffered wounds became prisoners of war. Among them was Sergeant Robert J. Simmons, whose arm was shattered by a Rebel ball. Unknown to Simmons, three days earlier in New York City a draft protest had turned into a race riot, and a mob had terrorized his mother and sister and stoned and clubbed to death his seven-year-old nephew. In one of the great tragedies of the war Simmons had his arm amputated and died several weeks later in a Charleston hospital, representing the very same people who murdered his young nephew.

Well over 40 percent of the men in the 54th Massachusetts were casualties in the assault on Fort Wagner. As one soldier described it, "They mowed us down like grass."

Well over 40 percent of the men in the 54th Massachusetts were casualties in the assault on Fort Wagner. As one soldier described it, "They mowed us down like grass." Confederate officials sent the wounded to Charleston hospitals, and after considerable indecision the prisoners of war went to camps, where some died and others were exchanged.

The Confederates interned the bodies of two officers in separate graves, but they laid Shaw to rest in a pit with his men. When Union authorities tried to retrieve his remains under a flag of truce, a Confederate hollered back indignantly, "We have buried him with his niggers!" Clearly the Confederates had intended to insult the sensibilities of whites; instead, it became a rallying cry across the North and helped to immortalize Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

One month later, when Shaw's father learned that General Gillmore was attempting to secure the remains, he requested that his son's body lie with his men. "We hold that a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen," the elder Shaw explained.

No doubt, the Battle of Fort Wagner left a lasting mark on its black participants. Two weeks after the assault, a black sergeant wrote his company commander, at home recuperating from a wound, "I still feel more Eager for the struggle than I ever yet have, for I now wish to have Revenge for our galant Curnel and the spilt blood of our Captin. We Expect to Plant the Stars and Stripes on the Sity of Charleston." Rather than undercut their commitment to the cause, the defeat at Fort Wagner enhanced the desire of the men in the 54th Massachusetts to see the war through to its successful conclusion. Two months after the valiant effort of the 54th Massachusetts, the Confederates evacuated Fort Wagner.


In conjunction with the outstanding performance of black soldiers at Port Hudson and Milliken's Bend, the assault on Fort Wagner challenged contemporary racial stereotypes. Black soldiers had demonstrated a willingness to stand up and fight against the Confederacy, something few Northern whites had considered possible. In turn, this helped to lay the foundation for the tremendous expansion of the number of black men in military service over the next two years. Prejudice was too deeply rooted for the Northern white population to cast it aside, but the blacks' conduct in these battles impressed them enough to give serious consideration to the widespread use of black soldiers. Slowly yet steadily, the Northern public began to warm to the idea that black soldiers could contribute significantly to the war effort. If the black troops had misbehaved under fire in these three battles, the results would have been catastrophic for the black soldiery and the black race. Fortunately, they fought with the courage of veterans, and that opened the door for others to serve.

Some eight months after the assault on Fort Wagner, the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry, raised throughout New York, paraded through the streets of New York City, the same place where a mob had murdered Sergeant Simmons's nephew. Now, thousands of people, both white and black, lined the avenues to cheer these men in Union blue. In part the draft had made the enlistment of black soldiers more acceptable to whites because blacks filled manpower quotas as did whites. But there was more to it than that. Whites had come to realize that these one thousand black soldiers were fighting for the same government and causes as were white troops.


The change in Northern attitudes, noted the New York Times, was startling:

Eight months ago the African race in this City were literally hunted down like wild beasts. They were shot down in cold blood, or stoned to death, or hung to the trees or to the lamp posts. . . . How astonishingly has all this been changed! The same men who could not have shown themselves in the most obscure street in the City without peril of instant death, even though in the most suppliant attitude, now march in solid platoons, with shouldered muskets, slung knapsacks, and buckled cartridge boxes down through the gayest avenues and busiest thoroughfares to the pealing strains of martial music, and everywhere are saluted with waving handkerchiefs, with descending flowers, and with the acclamations and plaudits of countless beholders.

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