A man may never be able to feel free, unless they themselves have earned the shade of liberty. This desire to create their own freedom surged throughout the African American community during the Civil War. Thousands of young, old, weak, and strong African American men were eager to enlist in the Union Army following the bombardment on Fort Sumter of April 1861.
But, Uncle Sam would not allow for any African American men to wear the blue uniform. President Abraham Lincoln feared that the enlistment of African American soldiers would cause Border States like Maryland and Missouri to succeed from the Union.
In early 1863, the mass of more than 150,000 soldiers could no longer be denied the right to bear arms and following the Emancipation Proclamation on New Years, African American men were allowed to enlist in the army. They flocked to the field to join the hymn of the Battle Cry of Freedom.
Even with the new troops, many white soldiers and officers believed that African American men were incapable of fighting and that under enemy fire they would run in fear. That would all change on this date in 1863.
In March of 1863, the governor of Massachusetts authorized the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was given command. Colonel Shaw came from a well-to-do family with an abolitionist for a mother. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was trained in Readville, Massachusetts and were supported by many white abolitionists including the famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. These men were brave and determined to fight for the life of the Union and for the freedom of millions. Their courage could not be questioned following December 23, 1862.
The Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, declared that any captured African American soldier and command white officer would be killed. Even with death following them like a shadow, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry remained strong because of their desire for equality and to fight for their country. African American soldiers were paid $10 for their service, which was $3 less than a white man; they refused to accept it.
Finally, in the Spring of 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was sent to Beaufort, South Carolina. Following a short stay in Beaufort, where they were stationed with other African American regiments, whom were poorly trained and had weak commanding officers, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry saw the “elephant” on July 16.
A small skirmish took place on James Island, while losing 42 men, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was able to successfully put down a Confederate assault. Their true strength was to be put on display two days during a Union charge on Fort Wagner.
A guard to Charleston Harbor, Fort Wagner was a dominant earthwork that may have appeared impossible to penetrate. General George C. Strong, a member of Union College before transferring to West Point, was determined to return the fort into Union hands. After an unsuccessful infantry charge on July 10th, General Strong and General Quincy Adams Gilmore agreed that the fort could be taken if it was softened by battery fire.
On the morning of July 18th, the Union guns opened fire. Believing that the fort was being hit by Union shells, the man who had graduated with high honors from West Point after his time at Union prepared him for an infantry assault.
General Strong called for his commanding officers to meet him during midday and discuss the plans of the assault. He was honest with the officers.
He knew the task would be difficult and the first few charges would see high casualties. Those threatening words did not stop Colonel Shaw and he saw this charge as a brilliant time to prove the strength of his African American soldiers.
Shaw accepted Strong’s request to have the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry spearhead the charge. Before the commencement of the attack at 7:45 a.m., Colonel Shaw addressed his men.
He exclaimed that “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look upon what you do tonight.” With that he drew his sword and the regiment began its march through the thick sand with Fort Wagner in their eyes.
As they marched forward it became clear that the Union battery had do almost no damage to the fort. The Confederate army, lead by General William Taliaferro, opened mass fire upon the African American regiment.
There was such little space to advance, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry had to march shoulder to shoulder, making almost every Confederate shot a success.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry went into a quick step, then a double, and soon enough it was a full out run. Shaw, in the lead, broke through the fort walls. As he reached the top, he was shot through the heart and fell into the fort. The color bearers were quickly shot after.
The state flag was taken by Johnny Reb, but the U.S. colors remained in the hands of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry thanks to the bravery of a young African American private named William Carney.
He would later be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor on July 18, 1863 because “Boys, the Old Flag never touched the ground.” As the firing ended and all of Strong’s waves had been deployed, the sun began to rise.
The golden rays shone brightly down upon Fort Wagner and the Confederate flag that flew above it. The attack was a failure and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry lost 272 men. Strong would be one of those 272 men dead because he would soon die of disease, or capture.
In total, the Confederates had lost 1,515 men. Under a flag of truce, several Union officers had asked the new commander of Fort Wagner General Johnston Hagood, he replied, “we buried him in the trench with his n—–s.” Shaw’s father though did not want any special attempt to recover his son’s body.
He informed the Union officers that he “can imagine no holier place than that in which he is, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish him better company.”
Those words could not have spoken any more truth for what the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry had done. They had proved that an African American soldier could fight just as well as a white one.
Their bravery could no longer be questioned and the 175,000 black warriors greatly helped the Union army during the last couple years of war.