The Charging Of Fort Wagner


"..lest I should indirectly give a new impulse to war. The
only regiment I ever looked upon during the war was the
54th Massachusetts on its departure for the South. I can
never forget the scene as Colonel Shaw rode at the head of
his men. The very flower of grace and chivalry, he seemed
to me beautiful and awful, as an angel of God come down to
lead the host of freedom to victory." -John Greenleaf

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts infantry, a Union
regiment comprised of black soldiers and commanded by
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, led an attack on Fort Wagner, a
Confederate stockade blocking the entrance to Charleston,
Virginia. To some, this was considered a tremendous honor
to the black soldiers who risked their lives that night.
Others felt that it was an excuse for racist commanding
officers to sacrifice the lives of black soldiers in order
to save those of whites. In an attempt to answer this
question, three author's points of view will be
examined-Peter Burchard, Zak Mettger and Luis Emilio. These
three authors virtually agree on almost every factual
aspect pertaining to the history of this regiment except
for the question: why was the 54th was sent to lead the
charge on Fort Wagner? 

On September 15, 1862, Robert Gould Shaw, who, at that
time, was a captain of a detachment of troops in
McClennan's army, arrived at Antietam Creek, in Sharpsburg,
Maryland. Two days later, Shaw was part of the bloodiest
battle in the Civil War. Shaw's unit was lucky and only
lost 5 men. Shaw, himself, only received a neck wound
inflicted by a gun shot from out of range. Though this
battle was an important victory for the North, Shaw's life
was affected more than he could have imagined. 

Having a record of solid victory, Lincoln saw it fit to use
his power as commander in chief of the United States Army
to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, an order to free the
slaves in the rebelling states as a war measure. Now,
runaway slaves would be enlisted in the army and dubbed as
contraband. Five months later, in February of 1863, Shaw's
father received a letter from the governor of
Massachusetts, John Andrews, requesting that his son
command the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a unit to be
entirely made up of black troops. When he first heard this
news, Shaw refused the offer, but after reconsideration and
a word with his commanding officer, he accepted. The next
month, Shaw arrived at the Readville barracks where the
troops were to be recruited, and where he spent the next
two months training the newly enlisted troops for battle.
On May 28, the Massachusetts 54th Infantry marched through
the streets of Boston where they were greeted by scores of
people cheering for them. Five days later, they traveled by
boat to Georgia, where the regiment teamed up with a unit
of contraband soldiers under the command of General James
Montgomery. The 54th's first call to action was considered
a shameful day for the regiment. It accompanied
Montgomery's forces on what was supposed to be an
expedition to forage for necessary military supplies. When
the two regiments came upon the town of Darien, Georgia,
Montgomery ordered his troops to plunder the town and take
everything they could carry. As it turned out, he was
illegally shipping all of the plundered goods as personal
luggage back to the North where they would be sold for
tremendous profit. The town was defenseless and there were
no Confederate troops near the isolated area, but
Montgomery ordered his troops to open fire on the buildings
and destroy the town. When Montgomery ordered Shaw to have
his men set torches and fire the town, Shaw refused. It
wasn't until Montgomery threatened to have Shaw
court-martialed and take away his troops, that Shaw obeyed
this order. 

After this incident, Shaw began to write the governor of
Massachusetts asking to have his troops reassigned to an
area where they would be able to join other soldiers in the
field of battle, as opposed to being relegated to degrading
labor such as burying the dead. On July 8, Shaw's letters
were answered, and he was ordered to have his troops pack
blankets, their necessary war materials, and a day's worth
of rations. They were going to South Carolina, in the midst
of the war where they would be based on James Island. Seven
days later, the regiment entered their first real battle.
Here, they defeated a group of Confederate troops, and at
the same time, saved the lives of many men in the 10th
Connecticut Infantry by diverting Confederate fire. The
very next day, the 54th traveled to Morris Island where
they were assigned to lead the charge on Fort Wagner, the
primary defense of Charleston. At 6:30 p.m. on July 18,
1863, without sleeping or eating for the previous two days,
the 54th made their daring charge. Although they fought
with tremendous inspiration and bravery, they were defeated
and suffered heavily, losing almost half of their force.
Among the dead lay Colonel Shaw, who was buried with his
own troops. Approximately a month after the charge,
Congress passed an order declaring that black and white
troops were equal and that black troops were to be put into
action as soon as possible. 

Peter Burchard, author of "One Gallant Charge", praises the
regiment to a higher level than any of the other authors.
His factual portrayal of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th
Massachusetts infantry's history is subjective and makes a
strong argument that the Union army did, in fact, have
respect for the men of the 54th. His secondary argument is
the belief that the regiment was not sent to lead the
charge on Fort Wagner in order to be sacrificed for the
white soldiers that would follow. Though this idea is not
dealt with directly in the text of his book, in his
personal note at the end, Burchard addresses the issue. 

Burchard begins by recounting Shaw's life and the history
of the Civil War to the time of the enlistment of the 54th
Massachusetts Infantry. Shaw is referred to as a hero by
the men he commands and is credited with being one of the
chief factors contributing to the valor, bravery, and skill
of the 54th. Burchard recalls many instances of Shaw's
outstanding bravery and leadership; the most powerful being
when Shaw volunteers to carry the national flag should the
flag bearer fall. Pointing to the man with the national
flag, Strong asked, "If this man should fall, who will lift
the flag and carry on?" Shaw was standing close to Strong.
He took a cigar from between his teeth. "I will," he said.1 

Most of Burchard's writing that deals with battle,
emphasizes the bravery of Shaw's regiment rather than
reciting military statistics. In his portrayal of the
54th's first battle on James Island, Burchard recounts
seven instances of bravery enacted by its individuals. For
example, he describes one act whereby an outnumbered
company of the regiment held their position and continually
drew the fire of charging Confederate soldiers in an effort
to save the men of the 10th Connecticut Regiment, who were
cornered in a dangerous position with nowhere to run.2 

In his personal note at the end of the book, Burchard
discusses his own feelings and expresses what he feels are
the important topics dealing with the history of the 54th
Massachusetts. He focuses on the fact that the commanding
officers, in planning the attack on Fort Wagner, did not
choose "Negro" troops over white troops to lead the attack
because of beliefs that "Negro" troops were expendable.
"There is no evidence that the Negroes of the Fifty-Fourth
were chosen to lead the attack on Fort Wagner because they
were thought of as black cannon fodder."3. Burchard's final
argument associates the regiments bravery and actions
during the charging of Fort Wagner with Congress' order to
declare "Negro" soldiers equal to whites. He quotes the
order in its references to the regiment and asserts that
the men of the 54th contributed to the "justice which would
now be sought for all United States Negroes under arms."4 

Zak Mettger, author of "Till Victory Is Won", wrote about
the 54th with more subjectivity than any of the other
authors. The main emphasis of his book is the idea that the
African American soldier in the Union Army was treated
unjustly due to the color of his skin. He focuses on the
differences between the tasks of white and black soldiers
and tries to prove that in the field of battle, black
soldiers fought with more skill and bravery than their
white counterparts. The first and foremost difference
between black and white soldiers described in Mettger's
writing was the difference in pay. He illustrates the
frustration of the enlisted black man caused by the fact
that his white counterpart would sometimes earn as much as
twice or three times as much money per month..5 Mettger
describes the 54th's protests about the lower wage. When
they were finally paid, after a five month delay, the men
of the 54th demonstrated their dissatisfaction by even
then, refusing to accept anything short of the proper wage.
When John Andrews, announced that the State Legislature had
voted to pay the black troops three dollars a month extra,
a bonus that would make the white and black troops receive
equal pay, a number of soldiers in the 54th were angered.
These soldiers felt as if the governor had "advertised them
to the world as holding out for money and not for
principle-that we sink our manhood in consideration for a
few more dollars...".6 Mettger explains that the black men
were not upset about the fact that they had less money, but
they were upset because they were not being treated equally.
In his description of the 54th regiment, Mettger focused on
the charge at Fort Wagner, where it earned its place in
American history. He gives a detailed description of the
battle itself and places a lot of emphasis on the 54th's
rigorous trip from James Island, a journey that Mettger
holds responsible for the regiment's tremendous fatigue.
Although Mettger credits the charge of Fort Wagner as an
honor for the black soldiers, he claims that is was in no
way intended to be one.7 He claims that the officers
involved with planning of the attack, selected the black
troops to lead the charge because of racist opinions and
the fact that black troops were considered to be
expendable. "In deciding the battle strategy, the General
in charge, Truman Seymour, had told other officers: "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."8 

The final point of view comes from Luis E. Emilio, a
company leader in Shaw's infantry. Having been the leader
of a group of these soldiers, he gives the most gripping
and insightful account of the history of the 54th in the
his writing, "A Brave Black Regiment". Emilio goes into
detail about the feelings of the soldiers in the regiment.
He describes the high morale of the men and their ability
to relax even after a day of intense training or degrading
work. His explanation for this is the idea that their long
hours of slavery must have taught them how to relax their
mind quickly. This is not good reasoning, however. It leads
one to question the validity of Emilio's writing, as the
54th Massachusetts infantry was composed mostly of free
blacks born in the North, not freed slaves. 

Emilio delivers the longest and most informative
description of the siege of Fort Wagner. He blames the
failure of the siege on the lethargy of the white troops
that were supposed to follow the 54th and "poor
generalship" on the part of Truman Seymour.9. He says that
no more men than the amount in single regiment of the Union
Army occupied an area of the fort at the same time.
Moreover, these were men of all different regiments who did
not have any organization. This, combined with the fact
that they did not know the base nearly as well as the
Confederates, put them in a dangerous position. Since they
were unable to attack under the heavy fire of their
ensconced opposition, the Union Army was forced to retreat. 

The three authors all agree that the 54th Infantry was,
indeed, a brave regiment, but each of them drew this
conclusion from different pieces of evidence. Having been
in battle with the regiment, Emilio is able to describe the
terror the men were faced with, and even goes so far as to
give examples of the fears the men had before the siege. He
recalls that right before the men were to charge the fort,
they were holding each other's hands in order to comfort
each other.10. Emilio describes the charge with great
detail and commends the bravery of the soldiers when they
continued to advance through the sand dunes toward the fort
even after suffering tremendous casualties. He recalls that
once inside the fort, (the regiment was only in a remote
section of the stockade for a short period of time) the men
of the 54th displayed great courage by facing off with a
larger, better armed, and better protected Confederate
Army. This stand-off was short lived, however, and the
regiment was forced to retreat because of, what Emilio
claims, a lack of reinforcements for which he blames the
slowness of the white units. Burchard refers to Emilio's
description of the battle in his discussion of the siege of
Fort Wagner, but uses the battle on James Island to give
the most examples of the regiment's bravery. 

Mettger does not use battles to describe the bravery of the
fifty-fourth. Instead, he says that the regiment was brave
just in signing up for the army. He indicates that they
knew that they would be treated unjustly but enrolled
anyway, and thus, their action showed their courage and
desire to fight. The views of Mettger and Burchard
contradict both in fact and in opinion on the question of
why the 54th was sent to lead the charge on Fort Wagner. 

While Burchard claims that there is no evidence that the
commanding officers were influenced by the fact the 54th
regiment was composed of black soldiers, soldiers that
could be sacrificed for whites, Mettger claims the exact
opposite. He argues that the black troops were sent to
fight because they were considered expendable and claims
Truman Seymour specifically said he might as well "get rid
of" the African American troops. If true, that would
certainly defend Mettger's contention. 

Emilio's writing agrees with Burchard's and disagrees with
Mettger's. Emilio states that General Strong had asked Shaw
if the 54th would want the honor of leading the charge on
Fort Wagner. However, Emilio has the least credibility due
to his erroneous reference to the men in his regiment as
being former slaves. Therefore, Emilio's argument about why
the 54th was sent to lead the attack becomes less
compelling in the controversy. The contradiction on the
validity of the Seymour's quote can also lead one to the
conclusion that the three authors have different ideas on
the respect the Union army had for the black soldiers.
Burchard and Emilio share the opinion that the black troops
earned the respect of the white officers after their
victory over the Confederates at James Island. This idea,
combined with their belief that the officers planning the
siege of Wagner had great respect for Shaw, would make
their argument question the validity Truman Seymour's
alleged quote. Mettger argues that the Union officers would
use the black soldiers for most tiring and degrading work,
while giving them the least respect. Therefore, it is not
surprising that he would believe that Truman Seymour would
make such a statement dealing with "getting rid of" the
black troops. 

All of the historians agree that the black troops were
treated unjustly. Therefore, it can be concluded that the
Union army was still treating them unjustly when they sent
the 54th to lead the attack on Fort Wagner. Some may argue
that the 54th's bravery on James Island convinced the
leading officers that they were, in fact, more than "black
cannon fodder." Yet, the question still remains unanswered
as to whether one act of bravery can convince men, who have
considered African Americans to be an inferior race, to
have respect for an entire people. 

Burchard, Peter. One Gallant Charge. St. Martins Press,

Emilio, Luis F. A Brave Black Regiment. Bantam Domain 1992.
Mc Pherson, James M. Marching Toward Freedom. 1991.
Mettger, Zak. Till Victory Is Won: Black Soldiers in the
Civil War. Laing Communications Inc., 1994
1 Peter Burcard, One Gallant Charge, St. Martin's Press
1965, p. 136
2 Ibid., p.123
3 Ibid., Author's note p. 1
4 Ibid., Authors note p. 3
5 Zak Mettger, Till Victory Is Won, Black Soldiers in the
Civil War, Laing Communications Inc., 1994, p. 48 

6 Ibid., p. 50 

7 Ibid., p. 64 

8 Ibid., p. 64 

9 Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment, Bantam Domain,
1992, p. 92 

10 Ibid., p. 85 


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