July 18, 1863 – the Massachusetts 54th conducted an unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, SC.
Following the South Carolina militia attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion was answered by a rush of free black men throughout the North seeking enlistment in the U.S. Army. These men were all turned away, however, because Federal law barred African-Americans from serving in the army. They were told, in no uncertain terms, that the war was strictly a “white man’s fight.” In the North, slavery had been abolished, but racism still prevailed.
Frederick Douglass angrily noted that, “colored men were good enough to fight under Washington. They are not good enough to fight under McClellan. . . . They were good enough to help win American Independence, but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion.”
Besides simple racism, Lincoln had political reasons at the start of the war explaining his reluctance to permit black soldiers. He was mainly worried about the reaction among white Union soldiers — particularly those soldiers from Border States [Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland, slave states that had not yet seceded] — to the idea of putting weapons in the hands of black men. Lincoln’s greatest fear was that such a move might prompt the Border States to secede to the Confederacy.
Nevertheless, by mid-1862, the urgent manpower needs of the Union Army and the fact that the Border states were now firmly in Northern control pushed Lincoln to change his policy. In August of 1862, Lincoln authorized the recruitment of the first 5,000 black soldiers. When a Maryland Congressman complained, Lincoln told him that the recruitment would continue, “since the country needed able-bodied soldiers, and was not squeamish as to their complexion.”
Lincoln followed in September of 1862 with the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, which specifically allowed for the recruitment of former slaves into the Union Army. Needing no further urging, African-American men signed up to fight in droves. These recruits included not only free Northern blacks but also tens of thousands of slaves whom had either runaway or been “liberated” by Union troops and were anxious to join the army to fight back against their former masters.
Enlistment of African-Americans in the army was further encouraged by black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, who urged black recruits to “fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.” Two of Douglass’ own sons, in fact, volunteered and fought with distinction. In fact, so many African-Americans responded to the call to enlist that in May of 1863 the Federal Government established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage the burgeoning numbers of black soldiers. By the end of 1863 over 50,000 black soldiers had enlisted in the Union Army.
Even though the enlistment barrier had been removed, black soldiers continued to face racial prejudice. They fought in segregated units which were almost always commanded by white officers. Black soldiers suffered higher casualty rates (since they were more often used as first wave assault troops and received worse medical care when wounded), and, until 1864, were paid less than white soldiers,
In addition to the ordinary dangers of war faced by all soldiers, black troops faced an additional peril if captured by the Confederate Army. In 1863 the Confederacy threatened to enslave any black soldiers captured in battle (and, to be fair, to execute their white officers). Although this rarely happened, black prisoners of war were still treated more harshly than white captives. For example, after the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in 1864, Confederate soldiers executed black soldiers who had surrendered. Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest, who witnessed the massacre, did nothing to stop it. None of this deterred black enlistment, however; in fact, such Southern behavior only served to encourage it.
One such African-American regiment was the celebrated Massachusetts 54th, which was formed in January of 1863, shortly after the Emancipation took effect. The Governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, a staunch abolitionist, received permission to create an all-black regiment from Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and enthusiastically set to the task. He promoted a young Captain from a wealthy Boston abolitionist family, Robert Gould Shaw, to Colonel to command the new regiment (the other white officers also came from abolitionist families).
Both white and black abolitionists, including such notables as Frederick Douglas and George Stephens, actively sought recruits from throughout New England and even Canada. By May of 1863 the regiment had 1,000 enlisted men and a full contingent of officers. So many came to volunteer, in fact, that a third of those seeking enlistment were rejected as not being “strong, robust, and healthy” enough to be included in the regiment
In May of 1863 the regiment had finished their training and were shipped down to South Carolina. After several months of raiding and support work, the 54th finally saw battle on July 16, 1863, in a skirmish with Confederate soldiers during which they suffered nearly 50 casualties. Two days later, still exhausted from fighting, the regiment was selected to lead the assault on Fort Wagner, a critical confederate installation which guarded Charleston.
Taking Fort Wagner would be no easy task. The fort sat on a narrow island, with the only approach being a narrow strip of beach that would fit only one attacking regiment at a time. That approach, moreover, was covered by several cannon perched on the fort’s walls. Any soldier able to get that far would then have to deal with the moat, filled with sharpened spikes, which surrounded the fort.
At dusk on July 18, 1863, Colonel Shaw led 600 of his soldiers along the beach in the ill-conceived assault. When they got within 150 yards the fort’s defenders opened fire with cannon and musketry, ripping through the attackers. Through sheer force of will the survivors carried on, across the rest of the beach, through the moat, and up the steep fort walls to the parapets, where they engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the fort’s defenders before being beaten back. Several regiments of white Union troops followed the 54th into the fray, but they too were repulsed with heavy losses.
Two hours later the fighting was over. Colonel Shaw had been killed and nearly half of the 600 men he led onto the beach were either dead, wounded, captured or missing. Despite the failure of the attack and the appalling casualties, the 54th was widely praised for its bravery during the battle. As reports of the 54th’s valor spread, black recruitment picked up even more. Sergeant William Carney, who grabbed and carried the US flag after the flag-bearer was shot, was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first African-American soldier to do so.
Over the course of the entire Civil War, roughly 200,000 black men served as soldiers or sailors for the Union. Of these, it is estimated that at least 120,000 were former slaves. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war (10,000 from battle, 30,000 from disease), a death rate proportionately much higher than that of white soldiers. Lincoln repeatedly emphasized the important contributions of black soldiers to the war effort. “Freedom has given us 200,000 men,” he wrote, “raised on Southern soil. Just so much it has subtracted from the enemy. Let my enemies prove to the country that the destruction of slavery is not necessary to a restoration of the Union; I will abide the issue.”