Saturday, July 18, 2009

18 July 1863: 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Launches Assault on Battery Wagner

On this day in 1863, African-American members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry took part in the bloody assault on Fort Wagner (also, or more strictly, known as Battery Wagner) outside Charleston.
Just as darkness began to close in upon the scene of the afternoon and the evening, General Strong rode to the front and ordered his brigade, consisting of the 54th Massachusetts, Colonel Shaw (colored regiment); the 6th Connecticut, Colonel Chatfield; the 48th New York, Colonel Barton; the 3d New Hampshire, Colonel Jackson; the 76th Pennsylvania, and the 9th Maine, Colonel Emery, to advance to the assault. At the instant the line was seen slowly advancing in the dusk toward the fort, and before a double-quick had been ordered, a tremendous fire from the barbette guns on Fort Sumter, from the batteries on Cummings’ Point, and from all the guns on Fort Wagner, opened upon it. The guns from Wagner swept the beach, and those from Sumter and Cummings’ Point enfiladed it on the left. In the midst of this terrible shower of shot and shell they pushed their way, reached the fort, portions of the 54th Massachusetts, the 6th Connecticut, and the 48th New York dashed through the ditches, gained the parapet, and engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with the enemy, and for nearly half an hour held their ground, and did not fall back until nearly every commissioned officer was shot down. As on the morning of the assault of the 11th inst., these brave men were exposed to a most galling fire of grape and canister, from howitzers, raking the ditches from the bastions of the fort, from hand-grenades and from almost every other modern implement of warfare. The rebels fought with the utmost desperation, and so did the larger portion of General Strong’s brigade, as long as there was an officer to command it.

When the brigade made the assault General Strong gallantly rode at its head. When it fell back, broken, torn, and bleeding, Major Plimpton of the 3d New Hampshire was the highest commissioned officer to command it. General Strong, Colonel Shaw, Colonel Chatfield, Colonel Barton, Colonel Green, Colonel Jackson, all had fallen. The 54th Massachusetts (negro), whom Copperhead officers would have called cowardly if they had stormed and carried the gates of hell, went boldly into battle, for the second time, commanded by their brave Colonel, but came out of it led by no higher officer than the boy, Lieutenant Higginson. (Harper's Weekly)
As noted in earlier postings, the 54th is very much present in our thoughts this year above all: Members of the current 54th, as well as re-enactors, marched in the inaugural parade of Barack Obama in January. Amherst residents fought and died with the Mass 54th. Some of these veterans are buried in the African-American section of West Cemetery. A soldier of the 54th is depicted on the Community History Mural, by artist David Fichter, in the Cemetery. And, finally, Amherst resident Sanford Jackson, who died of wounds suffered in the assault on Fort Wagner, was among the figures portrayed in "Conversations with the Past: The West Cemetery Walk," as part of our 250th anniversary celebrations in early May. A few days later, Town Meeting voted to appropriate Community Preservation Act funds to begin the restoration and installation in Town Hall of the antique marble tablets commemorating our Civil War veterans.

Further resources:

From the Civil War @ Charleston website:

"The Attack on Fort Wagner," Harper's Weekly, August 8 1863, p. 510 (from the American Antiquarian Society)

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