The Battle from the Movie Glory: 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, including Frederick Douglass’s Son, Fights Heroically at Fort Wagner
July 18, 1863. Historian James M. McPherson writes, “At twilight on July 18, 1863, the Fifty-fourth led an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold guarding the entrance of Charleston Harbor. Across the narrow spit of sand charged the Negro regiment led by its youthful white colonel, Robert Shaw. As the column approached the fort, the Confederates opened a murderous fire, cutting wide swaths in the ranks of the Fifty-fourth. Still they came, charging on to the parapets, swarming into the fort itself. Shaw was killed at the head of his regiment; his men fought on desperately until the failure of supporting white regiments to come up in time compelled a general retreat. . . .
“Two days after the battle Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis, a sergeant in the Fifty-fourth, wrote to his future wife:
My Dear Amelia: I have been in two fights, and am unhurt. I am about to go in another I believe tonight. Our men fought well on both occasions. The last was desperate we charged that terrible battery on Morris Island known as Fort Wagoner [sic], and were repulsed with a loss of [many] killed and wounded. I escaped unhurt from amidst that perfect hail of shot and shell. It was terrible. I need not particularize the papers will give a better [report] than I have time to give. My thoughts are with you often, you are as dear as ever, be good enough to remember it as I no doubt you will. As I said before we are on the eve of another fight and I am very busy and have just snatched a moment to write you. . . . Should I fall in the next fight killed or wounded I hope to fall with my face to the foe. . . .
“This regiment has established its reputation as a fighting regiment not a man flinched, though it was a trying time. Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use we had to retreat, which was a very hazardous undertaking. How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. My Dear girl I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I be killed. Remember if I die I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war.'”
McPherson continued, “. . . In the face of heavy odds, black troops had proved once again their courage, determination, and willingness to die for the freedom of their race. The New York Tribune later summarized the importance of the Fifty-fourth’s performance at Wagner:
‘It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-fourth had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand colored troops for whom it was a pioneer would never have been put into the field, or would not have been put in for another year, which would have been equivalent to protracting the war into 1866. But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to the white Yankees.'”
McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War, pp. 192-95
Immortalizing The First African-American Civil War Regiment, WBUR, July 18, 2013 (A story about the sculptures created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The famous sculpture sits on Boston Common while another one is at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire.)