Ten Years of TAC: July 18, 1863: Assault on Fort Wagner


(The American Catholic will observe its tenth anniversary in October.  We will be reposting some classic TAC posts of the past.  This post is from July 18, 2013.)




We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a body-guard he has!

Response of the parents of Colonel Robert Shaw as to whether they wished to have his body exhumed and brought back to Boston.




The 150th anniversary of the second assault on Fort Wagner, the Confederate fort on Morris Island, guarding entry into Charleston Harbor, made immortal by the film Glory (1989) depicting the attack of the 54th Massachusetts.  The 54th sustained the following casualties out of 600 men:  29 killed, including the commander of the regiment, 25 year old Colonel Robert Shaw, 15 captured, 52 missing in action and 149 wounded.  The white regiments that participated in the attack also sustained heavy losses.  A total of 1515 Union casualties against approximately 174 Confederate casualties.   Ironically, Fort Wagner would be abandoned by the Confederates in September, it being too difficult to keep the Fort supplied in the teeth of a continual Union bombardment, and the water supply in the Fort being contaminated by the number of corpses in the soil surrounding the fort from the two unsuccessful assaults.

The courage shown by the men of the 54th put the lie to the fairly common belief, completely at variance with history, that black men could not make good soldiers.  The 54th would go on to fight in several more battles during the course of the War.

Sergeant William Carney of the 54th earned a Medal of Honor in the assault.  Despite being wounded several times he placed the national flag on the parapet of Fort Wagner, and when the 54th retreated he brought back the flag in spite of being wounded twice more.  He told the men he gave the flag to:  “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

A correspondent for the Tribune was present for the assault:

Something must be done, and that, too, quickly, or in a few days we shall have the whole army in Virginia upon us,” said an officer high in command. “We must storm the fort to-night, and carry it at the point of the bayonet.”

In a few moments signals are made from the top of the look-out, and soon generals and colonels commanding divisions and brigades were seen galloping to the head-quarters of the commanding general. A few words in consultation, and Generals Seymour, Strong, Stevenson, and Colonels Putnam and Montgomery are seen hastening back to their respective commands. Officers shout, bugles sound, the word of command is given, and soon the soldiers around, upon, and under the sand-hills of Morris Island spring from their hiding-places, fall into line, march to the beach, are organized into new brigades, and in solid column stand ready to move to the deadly assault.

Not in widely-extended battle line, with cavalry and artillery at supporting distances, but in solid regimental column, on the hard ocean beach, for half a mile before reaching the fort, in plain sight of the enemy, did these three brigades move to their appointed work.

General Strong, who has so frequently since his arrival in this Department braved death in its many forms of attack, was assigned to the command of the 1st Brigade. Colonel Putnam, of the 7th New Hampshire, who, although of the regular army, and considered one of the best officers in the Department, had never led his men into battle nor been under fire, took command of the 2d, and General Stevenson the 3d, constituting the reserve. The 54th Massachusetts (colored regiment), Colonel Shaw, was the advanced regiment in the 1st Brigade, and the 2d South Carolina (negro), Colonel Montgomery, was the last regiment of the reserve.

These brigades, as I have remarked before, were formed for this express duty. Many of the regiments had never seen their brigade commanders before; some of them had never been under fire; and, with exception of three regiments in the 1st Brigade, none of them had ever been engaged in this form of attack. All had fresh in their memories the severe repulse we had met on the morning of the 11th inst. For two years the Department of the South had been in existence, and until the storming of the batteries on the south end of Morris Island, the army had won no victory fairly acknowledged by the enemy.

Just as darkness began to close in upon the scene of the afternoon and the evening, General Strong rode to the front and ordered his brigade, consisting of the 54th Massachusetts, Colonel Shaw (colored regiment); the 6th Connecticut, Colonel Chatfield; the 48th New York, Colonel Barton; the 3d New Hampshire, Colonel Jackson; the 76th Pennsylvania, and the 9th Maine, Colonel Emery, to advance to the assault. At the instant the line was seen slowly advancing in the dusk toward the fort, and before a double-quick had been ordered, a tremendous fire from the barbette guns on Fort Sumter, from the batteries on Cummings’ Point, and from all the guns on Fort Wagner, opened upon it. The guns from Wagner swept the beach, and those from Sumter and Cummings’ Point enfiladed it on the left. In the midst of this terrible shower of shot and shell they pushed their way, reached the fort, portions of the 54th Massachusetts, the 6th Connecticut, and the 48th New York dashed through the ditches, gained the parapet, and engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with the enemy, and for nearly half an hour held their ground, and did not fall back until nearly every commissioned officer was shot down. As on the morning of the assault of the 11th inst., these brave men were exposed to a most galling fire of grape and canister, from howitzers, raking the ditches from the bastions of the fort, from hand-grenades and from almost every other modern implement of warfare. The rebels fought with the utmost desperation, and so did the larger portion of General Strong’s brigade, as long as there was an officer to command it.

When the brigade made the assault General Strong gallantly rode at its head. When it fell back, broken, torn, and bleeding, Major Plimpton of the 3d New Hampshire was the highest commissioned officer to command it. General Strong, Colonel Shaw, Colonel Chatfield, Colonel Barton, Colonel Green, Colonel Jackson, all had fallen. The 54th Massachusetts (negro), whom Copperhead officers would have called cowardly if they had stormed and carried the gates of hell, went boldly into battle, for the second time, commanded by their brave Colonel, but came out of it led by no higher officer than the boy, Lieutenant Higginson.

The 1st Brigade, under the lead of General Strong, failed to take the fort. It was now the turn of Colonel Putnam, commanding the 2d Brigade, composed of the 7th New Hampshire, the 62d Ohio, Colonel Steele, the 67th Ohio, Colonel Vorhees, and the 100th New York, Colonel Danely, to make the attempt. But, alas! the task was too much for him. Through the same terrible fire he led his men to, over, and into the fort, and for an hour held one-half of it, fighting every moment of that time with the utmost desperation, and, as with the 1st Brigade, it was not until he himself fell killed, and nearly all his officers wounded, and no reinforcements arriving, that his men fell back, and the rebel shout and cheer of victory was heard above the roar of Sumter and the guns from Cummings’ Point.

In this second assault by Colonel Putnam’s brigade, Colonel Turner, of General Gilmore’s staff, stood at the side of Colonel Putnam when he fell, and with his voice and sword urged on the thinned ranks to the final charge. But it was too late. The 3d brigade, General Stevenson’s, was not on hand. It was madness for the 2d to remain longer under so deadly a fire, and the thought of surrendering in a body to the enemy could not for a moment be entertained. To fight their way back to the intrenchments was all that could be don, and in this retreat many a poor fellow fell, never to rise again.

Without a doubt, many of our men fell from our own fire. The darkness was so intense, the roar of artillery so loud, the flight of grape and canister shot so rapid and destructive, that it was absolutely impossible to preserve order in the ranks of individual companies, to say nothing of the regiments.

More than half the time we were in the fort the fight was simply a hand-to-hand one, as the wounds received by many clearly indicate. Some have sword-thrusts, some are hacked on the head, some are stabbed with bayonets, and a few were knocked down with the butt-end of muskets, but recovered in time to get away with swollen heads. There was terrible fighting to get into the fort, and terrible fighting to get out of it. The cowardly stood no better chance for their lives than the fearless. Even if they surrendered, the shell of Sumter were thickly falling around them in the darkness, and, as prisoners, they could not be safe until victory, decisive and unquestioned, rested with one or the other belligerent.

The battle is over; it is midnight; the ocean beach is crowded with the dead, the dying, and the wounded. It is with difficulty you can urge your horse through to Light-house Inlet. Faint lights are glimmering in the sand-holes and rifle-pits to the right as you pass down the beach. In these holes many a poor wounded and bleeding soldier has laid down to his last sleep. Friends are bending over them to stanch their wounds, or bind up their shattered limbs; but the deathly glare from sunken eyes tells that their kind services are all in vain.


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