On this day in July 1863, William Carney a sergeant from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry would perform actions that would earn him the Medal of Honor. The action took place at Fort Wagner on Morris Island, outside of Charleston, SC.
Carney was the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor in the nation’s history. And his actions and those of the 54th would pave the way to change. Prior to this battle, African-American soldiers were considered inferior to white soldiers. After the battle that fallacy would begin to disappear.
The war up to mid-1863 hadn’t gone well for the Union. With far fewer men and natural resources, the Confederacy had whipped the Union to a stalemate. With casualties mounting, President Abraham Lincoln approved the formation of all-black regiments. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteers was one of the first. Lincoln was initially opposed to the idea but relented under the pressure to raise more troops.
The South had also toyed with the same idea. They too were in desperate need of troops to do the fighting. Confederate President Jefferson was considering putting blacks in the army but changed his mind after receiving a letter from Major General Harold Cobb.
Cobb wrote to Davis, “Don’t do it. You can’t do this. Use Negroes for whatever purpose you choose, such as chopping and digging and planting, and as servants, but don’t make them soldiers, because if you make them soldiers, if they can stand on the field of battle with white men — if that is true, then the whole theory of slavery is wrong, and this Confederacy cannot endure.” His words would prove prophetic.”
Things were beginning to turn in favor of the Union by July 1863; General Grant took Vicksburg on the Mississippi River which split the Confederacy in two. And then General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was defeated in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania while trying to invade the North.
The 54th Massachusetts marched thru Boston on May 28 after completing its initial training at Camp Meigs in Massachusetts. The regiment was commanded by a young 25-year old Colonel, Robert Gould Shaw whose parents were noted abolitionists in Boston. Among their volunteers were two sons of noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass. They were sent to Beaufort, SC as part of the X Corps under the command of Major General David Hunter. But Hunter was soon relieved by MG Quincy A. Gilmore who had the ambition to go far in the military. Gilmore set his sights on Charleston, the place where the Civil War began with the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter. It was considered a bastion of the Confederacy and would be a worthy prize.
Gilmore’s plan was to seize Morris Island, where its guns controlled the inner harbor. From there on Cumming’s Point at the northern tip of the island, Union guns could be brought to bear on Fort Sumter, which had blocked the Federal’s fleet from entering the harbor.
But first, they’d have to take Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg on the upper third of the island. After making an amphibious landing on the southern half of the island on July 10, Gilmore’s men surprised and routed the Rebel troops and could have taken Wagner but he stopped short. That move would prove disastrous and costly for the Union. A frontal assault on Fort Wagner with no artillery support the next day on July 11 was thrown back with ease and the Union suffered terrible casualties. Gilmore would try again with more troops and a tremendous naval bombardment a week later.
Fort Wagner was relatively small, and measured only 250 by 100 yards, and spanned an area between the Atlantic on the east and an impassable swamp on the west. Its walls, composed of sand and earth, rose 30 feet above the level beach and were supported by palmetto logs and sandbags. The Fort held fourteen cannons, the largest, a 10-inch (250 mm) Columbiad that fired a 128-pound shell.
The only access for opposing forces was across an open beach area. In front of the wall was a water-filled trench which measured 10’ wide by 5’ deep and was supported by sharpened palmetto stakes. The structure under the cannons (called a bombproof) could shelter over 1000 troops and had a sandbagged roof approximately 10 feet thick which made it impervious to any shelling.
At 8:15 a.m. Union artillery began to fire on Wagner. Soon after, 11 Union ships under the command of Rear Admiral John Dahlgren sailed into position and began to pour fire on the Rebel fort. The Southern troops covered their cannons with sandbags and hunkered down. On battalion stayed on post while the rest of the troops rode out the bombardment in safety below in their bombproof.
As the tide rose in the afternoon, the Union ships could move in closer to shore and were firing from just 300 yards away. The bombardment rose in intensity as the afternoon waned. One Confederate officer wrote after the battle, “Words cannot depict the thunder, the smoke, the lifted sand and the general havoc; the whole island smoked like a furnace and trembled as from an earthquake!” Despite this heavy shelling, casualties among the Southerners were few. And as the sun began to set, the Confederate defenders could see troops massing down the beach, the expected attack was forming.
The 54th Mass Leads the Assault
Brigadier General George C. Strong had chosen Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts as the vanguard for the assault. He galloped up to the massing black troops and called the sergeant holding the colors to the front. “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?” Shaw stepped forward and said, “I will.” The men cheered in a deafening roar.
Shaw arranged his Regiment (624 men) in a column of wings, with the muskets at the shoulder and bayonets fixed. Shaw gave the order to advance at 7:45 p.m. They advanced at a quick time until Shaw could see they were nearing the dunes and then he ordered the men to double-quick time. At the point on the beach where the sand narrowed the approach to just 100 yards wide with the swamp on the left and the ocean to the right, the Massachusetts men were forced together forming a “V” with Shaw leading from the front. He ordered a charge.
As the 54th neared the Confederate ramparts, the shelling finally stopped. The Southern soldiers quickly deployed along the walls and loaded the six cannons that had survived the all-day bombardment. Once the Union troops were with 150 yards they opened fire. Shaw waved his sword and urged the men into the vortex of fire. They negotiated the palmetto stakes, crossed the ditch, which in many places had nearly filled in with sand from the shelling and up the parapet. As he crested the top, he waved his sword again, “Forward 54th!”, he screamed. Just then three bullets ripped into his body, killing him instantly. He pitched forward into the sand.
At the bottom of the slope, the bearer of the colors was killed. SGT William Carney ran forward and picked them up. He ran up the slope waving the colors, exhorting a group of soldiers with him. The defenders unleashed a fusillade of hand grenades down the slope and took out all of the attackers except Carney who was wounded.
The attack by the 54th stalled, as fire decimated the regiment. The Southerners were incensed at the sight of a black regiment and no quarter was given by either side. The rest of Strong’s brigade came charging up. The men of the 6th Connecticut crested the ramparts at the weakest point. Strong tried to push more troops into the opening, sending men from the 48th New York, 3rd New Hampshire, 76th Pennsylvania Zouaves, and the 9th Maine into the fray.
But the defenders had pushed three howitzers up and they fired canister rounds directly into the flank of the attacking Union troops. The firing was so fierce that one Union color guard remarked that “It was impossible to pass over that ridge and live five seconds.”
Inexplicably, the second brigade of Union assaulters commanded by New Hampshire Colonel Haldimand Putnam didn’t begin his assault until 8:30, a full 45 minutes since Shaw’s men stepped off. By the time they arrived at the ditch, the battle had disintegrated into a bloody chaos. Putnam tried to rally his men and called for reinforcements. Had Gilmore sent the third brigade into the fray, the Union men may have still taken Fort Wagner. But General Thomas Stevenson’s men were never given the order to advance. Gilmore’s command element had lost control of the situation, the initiative and now the battle.
Putnam was ordering his men back when the back of his head was blown off by canister shot. The Confederates launched a counter-attack and killed or captured the surviving Union troops in front of the fort. Carney despite being shot twice got the 54th’s colors away from the fort safely. By 10:30 p.m. the battle was over.
Confederate BG William B. Taliferro who had served under Stonewall Jackson, wrote that he had “never seen so many dead in the same space.” The casualties on the Union side were horrific with over 1500 dead, wounded or missing. The 54th Massachusetts lost 281 men including 54 dead and 48 unaccounted for and presumed dead, almost 40 percent of the command. Confederate casualties amounted to 36 dead and 145 wounded.
The Southerners singled out Shaw and his men for the ultimate insult. After stripping the dead of any souvenirs, including Shaw’s sword and signet ring, they piled the dead into a mass grave. Gilmore wouldn’t assault the garrison again but laid siege to it and finally, on September 6, short on food, supplies, and water, the Confederates of Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg abandoned their positions during the night.
Although the battle for Fort Wagner was a defeat, the ultimate result was that the union would take it eventually while under siege and command the entrance to the inner harbor. And while Charleston wasn’t taken, the port was no longer open which was a huge blow for the Confederacy. Already needy for supplies and trade goods from Europe, the loss of the port put an even greater strain on the Southern economy.
But even more importantly, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry showed that black troops could fight with equal skill and valor as their white counterparts. When word of the assault reached the newspapers, blacks flooded the recruitment centers. By the end of the war, over 200,000 blacks had served in the Union Army.
Erosion has washed away the beach where the battle was fought and the Confederate fort which is now under water. The Union disinterred the dead and reburied them in a military cemetery in 1865.
The story of Shaw and the men of the 54th was captured in the book “One Gallant Rush” and in the film “Glory” with Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman.
Photos Courtesy: Library of Congress
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