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Fort Wagner was a Confederate stronghold during the American Civil War that became a crucial point of acquisition for the Union forces. This was because of the location of Fort Wagner, which is situated on Morris Island and protected the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. Headed by the first official all-African-American infantry regiment, the Second Battle of Fort Wagner was an attempt by Union forces to push out Confederate soldiers. It saw bloodshed, hand-to-hand battle, and ultimately, the withdrawal and defeat of the Union forces.

The 54th Infantry Regiment

A painting of the soldiers of the 54th Infantry Regiment engaged in battle with Confederate soldiers“The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground,” a piece done by artist Rick Reeves for the state of Massachusetts, depicts the Second Battle of Fort Wagner and the soldiers of the 54th Infantry Regiment. (Photo Credit: The National Guard / Rick Reeves / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was an entirely African American infantry regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War. It was the second of its kind, following the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and was comprised of over 1,000 African American men. It was commanded by 37 white officers, and they were led in battle by the 25-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The 54th would become the first officially recognized African American Union military regiment of the Civil War, being officially sanctioned by the Lincoln Administration’s War Department. They would see their first real combat at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, participating in only one slight altercation prior to its assault on July 18, 1863. The battle for Fort Wagner was their chance to prove themselves.

Fort Wagner

An aerial view of a model of Fort Wagner.A model of Fort Wagner, located on Morris Island in South Carolina. (Photo Credit: National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

An initial attack was made on Fort Wagner on July 11, led by Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore. The structure of the fortress, with its walls made of sand and earth, were a daunting 30 feet tall and difficult to penetrate. This, plus the moat that surrounded the fort that was five feet deep and ten feet wide, made the idea of reaching the fort walls seem like a distant dream. Lining the moat were land mines and pointed stakes, and all of this had to be overcome while approximately 1,800 Confederate soldiers laid fire against the Union soldiers’ approach.

Unable to capture the fort itself within the first two days of the the initial attack, Gillmore and his troops temporarily settled for their acquisition of the southern part of Morris Island and retreated there. They achieved this ground with the assistance of naval bombardment, and used their position to regroup and plan for a second attack on the fort. The next assault was planned for July 18, and would be carried out by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

The second assault on Fort Wagner

An illustration of the attack on Fort Wagner by the soldiers of the 54th Infantry Regiment. A flag bearer holds the American flag and an officer holds a sword in the sky.Union soldiers storming the walls of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, and engaging some Confederate soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. (Photo Credit: Kurz and Allison / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Before the assault began, Gillmore ordered Union artillery forces to commence fire on the fort from their ships located 300 yards away. The second assault on Fort Wagner was made at sunset — the 54th were deployed for a frontal assault on the fort moving up the west side, while the nine regiment supporting units, divided into two brigades, attacked from the south.

When the 54th reached about 150 yards from the fort, the Confederate defenders opened on them with fire from cannons and small arms, causing a large portion of their troops to fall. This took out a good portion of their soldiers, but still they pressed forward. The Confederate defenders were led by Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro and they were heavily outnumbered, with approximately 5,000 Union fighters working to attack their position. However, it was their position inside of Fort Wagner that had given them proper defences.

With support fire coming from the Union brigades, the 54th were able to push further toward Fort Wagner, and reached the parapet. It was Colonel Shaw who led the men past the moat and up onto the parapet himself.

Colonel Shaw is slain

A painting illustration of the second battle of Fort Wagner. African American soldiers holding bayonets and wounded soldiers.The 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina, in 1863. (Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Early in the battle, as Colonel Shaw reached the top of the parapet, he stood up and yelled to his men, “Forward Fifty-Fourth, forward!” while holding his sword in his hand. What was meant to be an inspiring moment for the men of the 54th quickly turned into tragedy, as it was right at that moment that Colonel Shaw was killed by gunfire by the Confederate.

Shortly afterwards, the rest of the soldiers of the 54th were engaged in hand-to-hand combat, unsuccessfully brawling with Confederate soldiers at the parapet. They were eventually forced back. From the beach, the supporting Union forces were not having much luck themselves. They too were defeated after trying to support the 54th regiment and were forced to withdraw.

The frontal assault of Fort Wagner would cost the 54th dearly. Colonel Shaw and 20 other soldiers were killed at the battle, with another 125 wounded, and 102 declared missing in action. In total, some 1,515 Union soldiers would be lost, captured, or wounded in the effort to take the fort. The battle took approximately eight hours, and after a valiant effort, the Union forces were unable to capture the fort.

One man, Sergeant William Carney of the 54th, managed to recover the US flag after the flag bearer was shot down during the frontal assault of Fort Wagner. He successfully brought it back to Union lines, never letting it touch the ground, and for his bravery, became the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor by the US Congress.

Confederates eventually abandoned Fort Wagner

An illustration of gunfire from ground and naval forces of a fort stationed along a coastline.An illustration of the siege of Charleston dated August 1863. (Photo Credit: Popular Graphic Arts / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Confederates were unable to hold Fort Wagner for the remainder of the war. Following the Second Battle of Fort Wagner in the summer of 1863, Union forces continued to rain down on the Confederates with a more than 60 day barrage of shelling.

Eventually, the Confederates gave up the fort. The state of the building after over 60 days of shelling had caused it to become indefensible, and they were forced to abandon it on September 7, 1863. The Union had successfully acquired the fort which they had lost so many trying to conquer.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the Second Battle of Fort Wagner were depicted in the 1989 Hollywood film, Glory, starring Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Matthew Broderick.

The post The Second Battle of Fort Wagner Proved the 54th Infantry Regiment Had The Chops appeared first on warhistoryonline.

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