July 18, 1863
Once again we head back to the summer of 1863. On July 18th of that year there was a little skirmish in South Carolina that in the scope of things was not as important as Vicksburg or Gettysburg, but it stands out in memory for a couple of reasons. The first reason, and one that many of you might be familiar with, is the fact that the assault on Fort Wagner is the last scene in the movie “Glory” starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman.
One of the last shots, if I remember correctly, is when the Confederates are burying the dead bodies in a mass grave and you see Colonel Robert Gould Shaw being dumped into the trench with the black soldiers of his regiment, the 54th Massachusetts. I have only seen this movie a couple of times because it’s too cheesy and ‘Hollywood’ for me. Yes, the history did happen, but I’m just not crazy about this movie.
The second reason why you might be familiar with this battle is because it was highly publicized by the abolitionists in order to shed light upon the gallantry and bravery of the black soldiers. Up until 1863 blacks were not allowed to serve in the military, but after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued the tide of opinion seemed to be turning towards letting the free black man take up arms to aid in saving the Union.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave and an active abolitionist, remarked, “Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters ‘U.S.,’ let him get an eagle on his buttons and a musket on his shoulder and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” After the governor of Massachusetts was given the okay to allow blacks into the ranks of the army, two of Douglass’ sons joined.
The 54th Massachusetts was the first all black regiment to be organized in the North. White officers were chosen for this regiment from among the wealthier families who were involved in the abolitionist movement. Colonel Shaw’s parents met this criteria, so he was chosen to lead this new regiment. After being equipped with the help of the wealthy abolitionists’ funds, and after a lot of training, the regiment was mustered into service and shipped off to the coast of South Carolina.
Shaw’s regiment was chosen to lead the charge against Fort Wagner on July 18th. Fort Wagner protected the entrance to Charleston and would have been a nice foothold for the Union to have if they could take control of it. Despite the valor of the soldiers and their determination, they were unable to take the fort. Shaw was shot through the heart when he reached the fort’s parapet, and was deposited in a mass grave along with the soldiers of his regiment. The Confederates thought that this would be the ultimate indignity for a white man to be buried next to a black man, but Shaw’s father determined that this was the best place for his son to be for eternity; next to the men whom he had fought beside.
The bravery of this regiment was spread throughout the North with the help of the abolitionists. This battle had actually occurred shortly after the New York City draft riots, which were started over the angry feelings that the poor Irish had when they were told that they could be drafted to fight. They could have purchased a substitute, but none of the Irish in the poorer area of the city could afford to do that. Their protests included lynching blacks, performing other atrocities against blacks, and even burning down the Colored Orphan Asylum. After the Assault on Battery Wagner a few newspapers pointed out the black men who had fought so gallantly for their country deserved more respect than white men who had fought against it.
Today, unfortunately, the area where Battery Wagner stood in 1863 has eroded away and is now underwater. The picture on the left isn’t very clear, but you can see the brown splotch where the fort stood, and the blue lines indicate where the Union soldiers lined up for the assault. The white area represents the land that is now covered by ocean, and the yellow is what remains above water. The bodies of Colonel Shaw and his men have long been carried out to sea by the many Atlantic hurricanes that have blown through the area. Though the actual graves of those brave soldiers no longer are able to be seen, the effect that this first black regiment had on the war, and the rest of the country, can be seen in history from 1863 on. Perhaps they didn’t win the battle, but they did help to win the war. Black men would be allowed into the army to help fill the ranks and allow the Union to continue waging war.