The Civil War – Ft. Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts regiment

Submitted by C.J. Johnson


In mid-April 1861¸ the War Between the States began with the shelling of the Federal-held Fort Sumter, outside Charleston, South Carolina. Initially, there were no Union or Confederate black regiments. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation that black troops were allowed in the Union armed forces. states, “On May 22, 1863, the [U. S.] War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops to recruit and assemble black regiments.

Many blacks, often freed or escaped slaves, joined the military and found themselves usually under white leadership. Ninety percent of all officers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were white. One of the early black regiments was the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry.”

Commanding the 54th Massachusetts was Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a veteran of the 2nd Massachusetts infantry, who had seen action in the previous year in the Shenandoah Valley and Antietam efforts. After hand-picking soldiers and officers, the 54th set sail for South Carolina in late May.

During the summer of 1863, Union forces under General Quincy Gillmore attempted to capture Charleston, birthplace of the war. All attempts failed. Now he had a new plan of attack, by taking control of Morris Island and the reinforced sand and log stronghold, Fort Wagner. On July 10, 5,000 Union troops landed on the island and quickly took control of most of Morris island.

“The only barrier left was Battery Wagner, an imposing fortress that guarded Charleston Harbor’s southern rim. The fort was 30 feet high, nearly 300 feet from north to south, and over 600 feet from east to west. Inside were 1,600 Confederates, 10 heavy cannons, and a mortar for hitting ships off the coast…

The only approach to the fort was across a narrow stretch of beach bounded by the Atlantic on one side and a swampy marshland on the other…

Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts were chosen to lead the attack of July 18…Union artillery battered Fort Wagner all day on July 18, but the barrage did little damage to the fort and its garrison. At 7:45 p.m., the attack commenced.

Yankee troops had to march 1,200 yards down the beach to the stronghold, facing a hail of bullets from the Confederates. Shaw’s troops and other Union regiments penetrated the walls at two points but did not have sufficient numbers to take the fort,” according to During the fighting, Colonel Shaw, while leading his men, was shot and killed.

Later that evening Union troops retreated, having tallied terrible casualties.

The 54th was said to have lost 42 percent of its troops.

In contrast, casualties on the Confederate side were around 200, compared to the Union count of more than 1,500.

After suffering such a loss, Gillmore’s men began a long siege that resulted in the Rebels’ evacuation of the Fort during the night of September 6 – 7, 1863. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the battle of Fort Wagner was the recognition that black soldiers could and would fight as fiercely and bravely as white soldiers, when provided the opportunity.