Our Men Fought Like Heroes: A 54th Massachusetts Officer at Battery Wagner

     The sun was setting as the 54th Massachusetts marched along the beach towards Battery Wagner outside of Charleston, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. The shells of the Union navy exploded with a burst of light and a dull roar above the earthen parapets over which flew a large Confederate banner flapping in the breeze. As the navy shelling slackened, the men of the 54th could hear the beating of the long roll within the fort and steeled themselves for the task ahead. 

    Colonel Robert Gould Shaw had requested the honor of leading the charge into Battery Wagner, and now as he led his men "we could notice the ominous silence that preceded the storm," one officer later wrote.  "For a moment Wagner, Sumter and Johnson were silent—then bang—zip zip—thud—crack went the most terrific discharges of musketry, grape, canister, solid shot, and every description of ammunition into our ranks, over our ranks, and through our ranks. Men began to fall; the double-quick step was taken; away they went, over sand hills, rifle pits and abattis, every moment growing smaller in numbers, but closing on the center. I had attempted to keep my company together, but it was of no use. It was growing dark, so I pressed to the front, and towards the colors. The course pursued was followed by most of the officers; they closed the men on the colors and rushed forward."

In the course of the attack, Lieutenant Colonel Edward N. Hallowell reported that the regiment lost 270 men: three officers killed, eleven wounded along with nine enlisted men killed, 147 wounded, and 100 missing. The following letter, written by an unknown officer of the 54th Massachusetts, was sent back home to friends in New York following the regiment’s baptism of fire at Battery Wagner in July 1863. It appears on the blog courtesy of the New York State Military Museum and Veteran’s Center; the letter had been originally misidentified as having been written by a member of the 54th New York. 

 

This reversed clip from the 1989 movie Glory depicts the 54th Massachusetts as they formed into assault column along the beach. The gunboats of the Union navy steamed just offshore pummeling the defenses of the fort. The regiment advanced in two wings along the beach: Colonel Shaw led the right wing while Lieutenant Colonel Edward N. Hallowell led the left wing. 

Morris Island, S. C., July 21, 1863.

The same day of the attack on our forces on James Island, which three companies of our regiment sustained the brunt of, we evacuated James Island, by making a night march to Cole's Island, and destroying the bridges in our rear. On the morning of the 18th instant, we came to Folly Island, and crossed over to Morris Island. We remained under arms all day, while the monitors, gunboats, mortar boats, and our batteries kept up an incessant fire on Forts Wagner and Sumter. About 4 p. m. we received the order to advance, and the officers were made acquainted with the news that our regiment was to have the "post of honor," the extreme advance. We marched up the main road, passed to the front of our batteries, and formed in wings—that is the left wing in the rear of the right wing. My company was on the right of the left wing; the Colonel led the right, and the Major the left. We then lay down, awaiting the order to advance. Supporting regiments formed in our rear; the Rebel batteries threw round shot and shell, and our batteries replied with the same coin.

General George C. Strong

General Quincy Gillmore rode to the front of our line, cheered the men, informed them of the nobleness of the cause; company officers spoke a word of praise to the steady, and threatened to shoot the coward. The men were ordered to take off everything but equipment, and to load but not cap their pieces. In this manner we occupied the time until the order "forward." Up we sprang, General Strong in the front, and our gallant Colonel preceding the colors. We marched in quick time, the left wing closed up on the right, the men moved steadily amid a buzz and whirl of shell and solid shot, until within some 300 yards of the fort.

We could notice the ominous silence that preceded the storm; for a moment Wagner, Sumter and Johnson were silent—then bang—zip zip—thud—crack went the most terrific discharges of musketry, grape, canister, solid shot, and every description of ammunition into our ranks, over our ranks, and through our ranks. Men began to fall; the double-quick step was taken; away they went, over sand hills, rifle pits and abattis, every moment growing smaller in numbers, but closing on the center. I had attempted to keep my company together, but it was of no use. It was growing dark, so I pressed to the front, and towards the colors. The course pursued was followed by most of the officers; they closed the men on the colors and rushed forward. The fort was at last gained—now to get in.

Colonel Robert G. Shaw
54th Massachusetts


Some scrambled up the walls, others crawled up the bastions, and into the embrasures, but our men were now few in number; the fire had destroyed many, the supporting regiments had fired into us and retired; the monitor had thrown a shell or two by accident into our ranks. All this had served to discourage many men, and send them to the rear; only portions of some regiments gained the walls, but what then? Take our regiment for example. The Colonel was seen to fall inside the fort. The Major wounded went to the rear. Captains Willard, Russell, Simpkins, Appleton, Pope, Jordan, Adjutant James, Lieutenants Smith, Pratt, Tucker, Jewett, all wounded and carried to the rear. No wonder the men could do no more and back. The other regiments were in the same condition, without officers, and at last all fell back.

I was mortified that we had not succeeded, but I was consoled by the fact that our men fought like heroes and that whatever others might say, the mournful list of casualties would bear witness. So to the rear I went, and I must confess the greatest fear I had was that I should get struck in the rear, so I backed out most of the way. The Rebels completely raked the field in every direction, and many were struck down at my side. Halfway down I met Lieutenants James W. Grace [Co. C] and Benjamin F. Dexter [Co. C], and together we went back. The road was guarded by artillerymen with orders to send all the men back to their regiments. They acted brutally and shot some men in cold blood; it was foolishness to attempt to send men to their regiments when officers and men were all gone, and I, after finding that the guard were unreasonable, and that no provision had been made to reform the regiment, determined to do what I could. I went to the left of our advanced battery and found a rifle pit and embrasure not occupied by any men. I commenced collecting all the stragglers that came in and placed them in the rifle pits so that if necessary, we could make a stand.

The firing was kept up until nearly 12 o'clock that night on both sides. A strong advance picket was put out and fatigue parties were sent out to take in our wounded. General Stevenson came where I was and told me I did well in collecting the men and that he would relieve us soon. The 10th Connecticut regiment did so. We marched our men to the rear and sent them to their regiments. I found what remained of our officers, seven in all, and the men, marched to the rear and stopped for the rest of the night. We had nearly 270 men killed, wounded and missing. A great many of the wounded were very near the fort and probably fell into the enemy's hands. Those that we secured and the officers have been sent to Hilton Head. Some other regiments suffered badly but not so badly as ours. The men behaved splendidly, and it must be remembered that the regiments they acted with were old soldiers, while we had never really been under fire of any consequence. We feel very lonely now without our other officers. I think I never saw a more agreeable set of fellows than the officers of this regiment. It is wonderful, the attachment and respect we have one toward another, and it is very hard to have so many away.

Sergeant Major John H. Wilson of Ohio was serving as a sergeant in Co. G of the 54th Massachusetts when he was wounded during the attack on Battery Wagner. Wilson was promoted to sergeant major the following June following the discharge of Lewis Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass. Wilson moved to Maumee, Ohio after the war and is buried at Riverside Cemetery just a few miles from my home. 


Our camp equipage, &c., which were left at St. Helena, have been sent for, and everything indicates a permanent siege until the forts can be reduced. It will be a great relief when these things reach us, for since our departure from St. Helena we have been living more like Digger Indians than U. S. soldiers. We came away without anything. We are very anxious to learn the fate of Colonel Shaw—he was last seen on the parapet of Fort Wagner, cheering on the men.  We are in General Stevenson's Brigade, the 3d of the 1st Division, Gen. Terry. I have seen Captains Daland and Gardner and Lieutenant Nichols of Salem several times.

 

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