Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry proved their valor at Fort Wagner
Editor's note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of articles that looks back on different aspects of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment recruited in the North to fight for the Union in the Civil War, which included 72 Berkshire County soldiers, 150 years ago.
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- "Forward! Double quick, charge!" came the order from Col. Robert Gould Shaw and, with a loud "Whoop!," the men of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry made a wild dash toward Fort Wagner and into Civil War history.
"Across the field towards almost certain death we went! They opened upon us from their guns immediately, and oh how our men fell. It was a perfect slaughter pen; but my men never flinched, but pressed on yelling like mad men," recalled Lt. Edward Bulkeley Emerson, a Pittsfield native who was a white officer of the 54th.
It was July 18, 1863, and the 54th -- the first black regiment recruited in the North to fight in the Civil War -- was in the vanguard of an attack by two Union brigades on the fort located on Morris Island, just south of Charleston Harbor.
Emerson described the fort as "a very strong earthwork" with about 40 guns. The walls were about four feet high, with sand bags laid on top, raising it another three feet. The fort sat atop a hill with a water-filled ditch below.
Earlier that day, the 600 men of the 54th marched past their batteries amid the cheers of the officers and soldiers, unaware of what they were about to be asked to do. Already tired from staving off a Confederate infantry and cavalry attack on their encampment on nearby James Island on July 16, 1863, they were now heading toward an even more deadly mission.
"Gen. [George C.] Strong rode up, and we halted," recalled James Henry Gooding, a black soldier from the 54th who would later attain the rank of corporal. "Well, you had better believe there was some guessing what we were to do. Gen. Strong asked us if we would follow him into Fort Wagner. Every man said yes -- we were ready to follow wherever we were led."
The 54th, along with the 6th Connecticut, 48th New York, 3rd New Hampshire, 9th Maine and 76th Pennsylvania were under Strong's command.
This was to be the second attempt to take the fort, and like the earlier attack, on July 10, it would also be repulsed by the Confederates.
The line of blue snaked forward as Rebel cannon on an adjoining island attempted to shell the men and although no one was hit, the balls ricocheted over their heads and landed dangerously close to the troops.
The men were ordered to lie down, load their muskets and fix their bayonets. Shaw calmly walked back and forth along the line of his men as they waited for the rest of the troops to get in position. "Now, I want you to prove yourselves men," Shaw told his regiment, reminding them that the eyes of the world were upon them.
All that day, Union gunboats had been shelling the fort in the hopes of making for an easier ground assault, but it was not enough.
When Shaw and his men advanced across the open field, they were met with a hail of grapeshot -- clusters of small metal balls that could easily cut a line of infantry down -- and Minie balls (a type of rifled bullet), but kept on going.
Gooding recalled, in a letter to the New Bedford (Conn.) Mercury, that they "met the foe on the parapet of Wagner with the bayonet" but were exposed to "a murderous fire from the batteries of the fort."
During the first charge the men wavered briefly, according to Gooding, but soon gained the parapet. The color bearer carrying the Massachusetts state flag was killed. Shaw seized the staff and attempted to rally his men, but was himself cut down by withering fire.
His troops desperately attempted to pull their commander back to safety, but they were either shot down themselves or fell back into the watery ditch below the fort. One soldier was able to retrieve the state flag, now in tatters, but they couldn't reach Shaw.
William Harvey Kearney, a sergeant with the 54th from New Bedford, would later receive the Medal of Honor after saving the American flag and planting it on the fort's parapet after he sustained several wounds. He had been born a slave in Virginia and escaped through the Underground Railroad to Massachusetts.
While the 54th fought bravely that evening, they could not dislodge the Rebels and they fell back.
"Mortal men could not stand such a fire, and the assault on Wagner was a failure," recalled Gooding.
Among the 272 men of the 54th who were killed, injured or taken prisoner, were Berkshire residents Henry Burghardt and Eli Franklin. Burghardt, who was from Lee, was killed in action. Franklin, a Pittsfield man, died from his battle wounds two days after the attempted storming of the fort.
Emerson, who was slightly wounded in the assault when a musket ball grazed his cheek, was proud of the 54th's actions.
"Never did a regiment charge more nobly than these brave Negroes," Emerson wrote in a letter to his father, Major Charles N. Emerson.
This sentiment was shared by many, including numerous Northern newspapers, such as the New York Times: "Could any one from the North see these brave fellows as they lie here, their prejudice against them, if he had any, would all pass away."
Gen. Truman Seymour, who oversaw the attack on the fort, would later say that the men of the 54th were chosen to lead the charge because it "was in every respect as efficient as any other body of men; and as it was one of the strongest and best officered, there seemed to be no good reason why it should not be selected for the advance."
While the attack was a failure -- the Confederates would later abandon the fort in September 1863 -- the 54th's brave assault proved the importance of black soldiers in the Union Army, and helped with the recruitment of other blacks into the military, which Abraham Lincoln would credit as helping to secure the final victory against the Confederates.
During the first few days after the assault, there was some confusion as to whether Shaw had been killed or merely wounded and taken prisoner. Emerson, in his letter, wrote that Shaw had been captured.
In reality, Shaw was killed during the attack, his body stripped of any valuables and tossed into a mass grave with the bodies of his fallen soldiers. The Confederates meant it as an insult, but Shaw's family, including his wife, Anna Kneeland Haggerty Shaw, issued a statement that they wanted Shaw's body to remain buried were it was, with his men.
At the time of Shaw's death, his wife had been passing the summer at the family farm in Lenox, awaiting news of her husband. She would never remarry and is buried in Lenox where she spent the last few years of her life.
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