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The Charging of Fort Wagner

"..lest I should indirectly give a new impulse to war. The only regiment I ever looked upon during the war was the 54th
Massachusetts on its departure for the South. I can never forget the scene as Colonel Shaw rode at the head of his men. The
very flower of grace and chivalry, he seemed to me beautiful and awful, as an angel of God come down to lead the host of
freedom to victory." -John Greenleaf Whittier On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts infantry, a Union regiment comprised
of black soldiers and commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, led an attack on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stockade
blocking the entrance to Charleston, Virginia.

To some, this was considered a tremendous honor to the black soldiers who risked their lives that night. Others felt that it was an excuse for racist commanding officers to sacrifice the lives of black soldiers in order to save those of whites. In an attempt to answer this question, three author's points of view will be examined-Peter Burchard, Zak Mettger and Luis Emilio. These three authors virtually agree on almost every factual aspect pertaining to the history of this regiment except for the question: why was the 54th was sent to lead the charge on Fort Wagner? On September 15, 1862, Robert Gould Shaw, who, at that time, was a captain of a detachment of troops in McClennan's army, arrived at Antietam Creek, in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Two days later, Shaw was part of the bloodiest battle in the Civil War. Shaw's unit was lucky and only lost 5 men. Shaw, himself, only received neck wound inflicted by a gun shot from out of range. Though this battle was a important victory for the North, Shaw's life was affected more than he could have imagined.

Coming off of a solid victory, Lincoln saw it fit to use his power as commander in chief of the United States
Army to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, an order to free the slaves in the rebelling states as a war measure. Now,
runaway slaves would be enlisted in the army and dubbed as contraband. Five months later, in February of 1863, Shaw's
father received a letter from the governor of Massachusetts, John Andrews, requesting that his son command the 54th
Massachusetts Infantry, a unit to be entirely made up of black troops. When he first heard this news, Shaw refused the offer,
but after reconsideration and a word with his commanding officer, he accepted. The next month, Shaw arrived at the Readville
barracks where the troops were to be recruited, and where he spent the next two months training the newly enlisted troops for
battle. On May 28, the Massachusetts 54th Infantry marched through the streets of Boston where they were greeted by scores
of people cheering for them. Five days later, they traveled by boat to Georgia, where the regiment teamed up with a unit of
contraband soldiers under the command of General James Montgomery. The 54th's first call to action was considered a
shameful day for the regiment. It accompanied Montgomery's forces on what was supposed to be expedition to forage for
necessary military supplies. When the two regiments came upon the town of Darien, Georgia, Montgomery ordered his troops
to plunder the town and take everything they could carry. As it turned out, he was illegally shipping all of the plundered goods
as personal luggage back to the North where they would be sold for tremendous profit. The town was defenseless and there
were no Confederate troops near the isolated area, but Montgomery ordered his troops to open fire on the buildings and
destroy the town. When Montgomery ordered Shaw to have his men set torches and fire the town, Shaw refused. It wasn't
until Montgomery threatened to have Shaw court-martialed and take away his troops that Shaw obeyed this order. After this
incident, Shaw began to write the governor of Massachusetts asking to have his troops reassigned to an area where they would
be able to join other soldiers in the field of battle, as opposed to being relegated to degrading labor such as burying the dead.

On July 8, Shaw's letters were answered, and he was ordered to have his troops pack blankets, their necessary war materials,
and a day's worth of rations. They were going to South Carolina, in the midst of the war where they would be based on James
Island. Seven days later, the regiment entered their first real battle. Here, they defeated a group of Confederate troops, and at
the same time, saved the lives of many men in the 10th Connecticut Infantry by diverting Confederate fire. The very next day,
the 54th traveled to Morris Island where they were assigned to lead the charge on Fort Wagner, the primary defense of
Charleston. At 6:30 p.m. on July 18, 1863, without sleeping or eating for the previous two days, the 54th made their daring
charge. Although they fought with tremendous inspiration and bravery, they were defeated and suffered heavily, losing almost
half of their force. Among the dead lay Colonel Shaw, who was buried with his own troops. Approximately a month after the
charge, Congress passed an order declaring that black and white troops were equal and that black troops were to be put into
action as soon as possible. Peter Burchard, author of One Gallant Charge, praises the regiment to a higher level than any of the
other authors. His factual portrayal of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts infantry's history is subjective and
makes a strong argument that the Union army did, in fact, have respect for the men of the 54th. His secondary argument is the
belief that the regiment was not sent to lead the charge on Fort Wagner in order to be sacrificed for the white soldiers that
would follow. Though this idea is not dealt with directly in the text of his book, in his personal note at the end, Burchard
addresses the issue. Burchard begins by recounting Shaw's life and the history of the Civil War to the time of the enlistment of
the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Shaw is referred to as a hero to the men he commands and is credited with being one of the
chief factors contributing to the valor, bravery, and skill of the 54th. Burchard recalls many instances of Shaw's outstanding
bravery and leadership; the most powerful being when Shaw volunteers to carry the national flag should the flag bearer fall.
Pointing to he man with the national flag, Strong asked, "If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry on?" Shaw was
standing close to Strong. He took a cigar from between his teeth. "I will," he said.1 Most of Burchard's writing that deals with
battle emphasizes the bravery of Shaw's regiment Rather than reciting military statistics. In his portrayal of the 54th's first battle
on James island, Burchard recounts seven instances of bravery enacted by its individuals. For example, he describes one act
whereby an outnumbered company of the regiment held their position and continually drew the fire of charging Confederate
soldiers in an effort to save the men of the 10th Connecticut Regiment, who were cornered in a dangerous position with
nowhere to run.2 In his personal note at the end of the book, Burchard discusses his own feelings and expresses what he feels
are the important topics dealing with the history of the 54th Massachusetts. He focuses on the fact that the commanding
officers, in planning the attack on Fort Wagner, did not choose "Negro" troops over white troops to lead the attack because of
beliefs that "Negro" troops were expendable. "There is no evidence that the Negroes of the Fifty-Fourth were chosen to lead
the attack on Fort Wagner because they were thought of as black cannon fodder."3 Burchard's final argument associates the
regiments bravery and actions during the charging of Fort Wagner with Congress' order to declare "Negro" soldiers equal to
whites. He quotes the order in its references to the regiment and asserts that the men of the 54th contributed to the "justice
which would now be sought for all United States Negroes under arms."4 Zak Mettger, author of Till Victory Is Won, wrote
about the 54th with more subjectivity than any of the other authors. The main emphasis of his book is the idea that the African
American soldier in the Union Army was treated unjustly due to the color of his skin. He focuses on the differences between
the tasks of white and black soldiers and tries to prove that in the field of battle, black soldiers fought with more skill and
bravery than their white counterparts. The first and foremost difference between black and white soldiers described in
Mettger's writing was the difference in pay. He illustrates the frustration of the enlisted black man caused by the fact that his
white counterpart would sometimes earn as much as twice or three times as much money per month..5 Mettger describes the
54th's protests about the lower wage. When they were finally paid, after a five month delay, the men of the 54th demonstrated
their dissatisfaction by even then, refusing to accept anything short of the proper wage. When John Andrews, announced that
the State Legislature had voted to pay the black troops three dollars a month extra, a bonus that would make the white and
black troops receive equal pay, a number of soldiers in the 54th were angered. These soldiers felt as if the governor had
"advertised them to the world as holding out for money and not for principle-that we sink our manhood in consideration for a
few more dollars...".6 Mettger explains that the black men were not upset about the fact that they had less money, but they
were upset because they were not being treated equally. In his description of the 54th regiment, Mettger focused on the charge
at Fort Wagner, where it earned its place in American history. He gives a detailed description of the battle itself and places a
lot of emphasis on the 54th's rigorous trip from James Island, a journey that Mettger holds responsible for the regiment's
tremendous fatigue. Although Mettger credits the charge of Fort Wagner as an honor for the black soldiers, he claims that is
was in no way intended to be one.7 He claims that the officers involved with planning of the attack selected the black troops to
lead the charge because of racist opinions and the fact that black troops were considered to be expendable. "In deciding the
battle strategy, the General in charge, Truman Seymour, had told other officers: "I guess we will let Strong lead and put those
d-----d niggers from Massachusetts in the advance; we may as well get rid of them, one time as another."8 The final point of
view comes from Luis E. Emilio, a company leader in Shaw's infantry. Having been the leader of a group of these soldiers, he
gives the most gripping and insightful account of the history of the 54th. Emilio goes into detail about the feelings of the soldiers
in the regiment. He describes the high morale of the men and their ability to relax even after a day of intense training or
degrading work. His explanation for this is the idea that their long hours of slavery they must have taught them to relax their
mind quickly. This is not good reasoning, however. It leads one to question the validity of Emilio's writing, as the 54th
Massachusetts infantry was composed mostly of free blacks born in the North, not freed slaves. Emilio delivers the longest and
most informative description of the siege of Fort Wagner. He blames the failure of the siege on the lethargy of the white troops
that were supposed to follow the 54th and "poor generalship" on the part of Truman Seymour.9 He says that no more men
than the amount in single regiment of the Union Army occupied an area of the fort at the same time. Moreover, these were men
of all different regiments who did not have any organization. This, combined with the fact that they did not know the base nearly
so well as the Confederates, put them in dangerous position where they were unable to attack under the heavy fire of their
ensconced opposition, a situation that forced the Union Army to retreat. The three authors all agree that the 54th Infantry was,
indeed, a brave regiment, but each of them drew this conclusion from different pieces of evidence. Having been in battle with
the regiment, Emilio is able to describe the terror the men were faced with, and even goes so far as to give examples of the
fears the men had before the siege. He recalls that right before the men were to charge the fort, they were holding each others
hands in order to comfort each other. 10 Emilio describes the charge with great detail and commends the bravery of the
soldiers when they continued to advance through the sand dunes toward the fort even after suffering tremendous casualties. He
recalls that once inside the fort, (the regiment was only in a remote section of the stockade for a short period of time) the men
of the 54th displayed great courage by facing off with a larger, better armed, and better protected Confederate Army. This
stand-off was short lived, however, and the regiment was forced to retreat because of, what Emilio claims, a lack of
reinforcements for which he blames the slowness of the white units. Burchard refers to Emilio's description of the battle in his
discussion of the siege of Fort Wagner, but uses the battle on James Island to give the most examples of the regiment's bravery.

Mettger does not use battles to describe the bravery of the fifty-fourth. Instead, he says that the regiment was brave just in
signing up for the army. He indicates that they knew that they would be treated unjustly but enrolled anyway, and thus, their
action showed their courage and desire to fight. The views of Mettger and Burchard contradict both in fact and in opinion on
the question of why the 54th was sent to lead the charge on Fort Wagner. While Burchard claims that there is no evidence that
the commanding officers were influenced by the fact the 54th regiment was composed of black soldiers, soldiers that could be
sacrificed for whites, Mettger claims the exact opposite. He argues that the black troops were sent to fight because they were
considered expendable and claims Truman Seymour specifically said he might as well "get rid of" the African American troops.
If true, that would certainly defend Mettger's contention. Emilio's writing agrees with Burchard's and disagrees with Mettger's.
Emilio states that General Strong had asked Shaw if the 54th would want the honor of leading the charge on Fort Wagner.
However, Emilio has the least credibility due to his erroneous reference to the men in his regiment as being former slaves.
Therefore, Emilio's argument about why the 54th was sent to lead the attack becomes less compelling in the controversy. The
contradiction on the validity of the Seymour's quote can also lead one to the conclusion that the three authors have different
ideas on the respect the Union army had for the black soldiers. Burchard and Emilio share the opinion that the black troops
earned the respect of the white officers after their victory over the Confederates at James Island. This idea, combined with their
belief that the officers planning the siege of Wagner had great respect for Shaw, would make their argument question the
validity Truman Seymour's alleged quote. Mettger argues that the Union officers would use the black soldiers for most tiring
and degrading work, while giving them the least respect. Therefore, it is not surprising that he would believe that Truman
Seymour would make such a statement dealing with "getting rid of" the black troops.

By the evidence presented, I tend to favor the argument of Mettger over that of Burchard and Emilio. All of the historians agree that the black troops were treated unjustly. Therefore, I conclude that the Union army was still treating them unjustly when they sent the 54th to lead the attack on Fort Wagner. Some may argue that the 54th's bravery on James Island convinced the leading officers that they were, in fact, more than "black cannon fodder." Yet, how could one act of bravery convince men, who have considered African Americans to be an inferior race, to have respect for an entire people.


A Brave Black Regiment, Luis F. Emilio, Bantam Domain 1992 Marching Toward Freedom, James M.

1991 One Gallant Charge, Peter Burcard, St. Martin's Press, 1965 Till Victory Is Won: Black
Soldiers in the Civil War, Laing Communications Inc., 1994

1 Peter Burcard, One Gallant Charge, St. Martin's Press 1965, p. 136

2 Ibid., p.123

3 Ibid., Author's note p. 1

4 Ibid., Authors note p. 3

5 Zak Mettger, Till Victory Is Won, Black Soldiers in the Civil War, Laing Communications
Inc., 1994, p. 48 6 Ibid., p. 50 7 Ibid., p. 64 8 Ibid., p. 64 9 Luis F. Emilio, A Brave
Black Regiment, Bantam Domain, 1992, p. 92 10 Ibid., p. 85 114



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