the legend of the 54th massachusetts -- 3/25/19

Today's selection -- from A Short History of Charleston by Robert Rosen. The Civil War had begun with a Confederate attack on Charleston's Fort Sumter, and with the fall of that fort into Confederate hands. The legend of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts would be indelibly written on the pages of that war's history in a July 1863 attempt by the Union Army to retake that fort:

"The Union fleet's attack on Fort Sumter began on April 7, 1863, and continued on and off throughout the remainder of the war. There were eleven major and minor bombardments of the fort, attacks by small boats, and shelling from land and sea. Fort Sumter never surrendered. It was held tena­ciously until February 1865 when the end of the war was certain.

"But during the spring and summer of 1863, Charlestonians still thought they might win the war. They and the Confederacy had determined that Charleston would never surrender. And the siege of Charleston, which had begun in April with the attack on Fort Sumter continued. In July 1863, after weeks of secret preparations on Folly Island and Coles Island, the Union Army attacked strategically important Morris Island, which protected both Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor. The island was really a sandbar, but, in terms of lives, it was an expensive piece of real estate in 1863. The goal of the attack on Morris Island was Battery Wagner, a fort near the tip of Morris Island that commanded part of the harbor and a main ship channel. With Wagner intact, no base would be available to the Union Army from which to launch an attack against Charleston.

"The assault on Battery Wagner lasted from July 10 to July 18, 1863.

"Losses were heavy on both sides, but Union losses were especially heavy. Some of those killed belonged to the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment of black troops led by white officers and commanded by the aristocratic Bostonian Robert Gould Shaw.

"The 54th Massachusetts had been organized in the wake of the Emanci­pation Proclamation in 1863 by Governor John A. Andrews of Massachusetts, a zealous abolitionist who promoted the then unpopular idea of using black troops. It was to be 'a model for all future Colored Regiments.' Shaw, the 25-year-old Boston Brahmin and battle-seasoned veteran of Cedar Mountain and Antietam, accepted command. The regiment departed from Boston's flag­ draped streets in May, arrived in Hilton Head in June, and arrived on James Island in July.

"The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts were chosen to lead the final assault on Battery Wagner on the night of July 18. Six thousand Union troops stormed the battery, some invading the fort itself before being repulsed. There were 1,500 Union casualties, including Shaw. Nearly half of the 54th Regi­ment was killed. The attack failed. Historians disagree about the effectiveness of the 54th, but the loss at Battery Wagner had a large impact in the North. 'Hardly another operation of the war,' Dudley T. Cornish has written in The Sable Arm, 'received so much publicity or stirred so much comment. Out of it a legend was born. As a result of it Robert Gould Shaw came as close to canonization as a new England Puritan can. '

"The significance of the actions of the 54th Massachusetts was just this:  African-American troops could and would fight and die for their country. It was a simple proposition, but one which most whites -- North and South -- did not believe before that battle. 'It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts 54th had faltered when its trial came,' said the New York Tribune, 'two hundred thousand troops for whom it was a pioneer would never have put into the field ... But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name for the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to the white Yankees.'

"Robert Gould Shaw was buried by the Confederates on Morris Island, with the dead of his regiment, or, as the Southern press described it, in a ditch 'with his niggers.' Northern reaction was vehement, and many insisted Shaw's body be buried with dignity elsewhere. Shaw's father, however, wrote General Quincy Adams Gillmore, the Union commander, that 'a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen.' "



Robert Rosen


A Short History of Charleston


University of South Carolina Press


Copyright 1982, 1992 by Robert N. Rosen


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