Key Point: The black soldiers served the Union and helped end slavery. However, they would still have many obstacles to overcome during and after the war.
The sun had already set, but the western sky was still bright from its fiery departure not long before. To the east, across the broad Atlantic Ocean, sea fog was forming, a cottony mass that would soon obscure the horizon. At the moment, though, the visibility was good enough for Federal warships to subject Fort Wagner to a naval bombardment of increasing intensity.
It was the early evening of July 18, 1863, and Fort Wagner was one of a string of fortifications that guarded the approaches to Charleston, South Carolina. The fort was situated on the northern tip of Morris Island, a marshy patch of land that had immense strategic importance. The Confederacy depended on swift ships that could evade the Union’s naval blockade, which was designed to economically strangle the South. The blockade runners’ entry and exit into Charleston would be made simpler if they could enter under the protection of Fort Wagner’s guns.
For most Union soldiers, the emotional considerations were just as important as the strategic ones. Charleston was the place where the war began, the cradle of secession and rebellion. Confederate batteries had opened fire on Fort Sumter a little more than two years before, starting a fratricidal conflict with no end in sight. If the Federals took Fort Wagner, they would be one step closer toward their ultimate goal, the capture of Charleston.
The operation had been planned by Union Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore, the newly appointed commander of the Department of the South. Gillmore was an engineer who had earlier successfully taken the Confederacy’s Fort Pulaski. In a bold stroke he had secured the approaches to Savannah, Georgia. The general had land batteries in place but made sure that the Union fleet waiting just off the coast also would join the attack. Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, the commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was more than willing to cooperate.
The naval bombardment continued, the shells exploding in great gouts of smoke and flame. Some of the naval shells weighed 400 pounds. They were fearsome projectiles that when fired sounded like an express train as they hurled through the sky. One shell landed just offshore, and when it detonated the water where it hit erupted into a blossoming geyser of dead fish. Federal land batteries joined in the destruction, adding their weight of metal to the deadly proceedings.
But Gillmore was an experienced engineer, and he knew that barring a miracle a heavy bombardment alone would not secure the fort. It would have to be taken by a full-scale infantry assault. The Union general had 11,000 troops available, so manpower was certainly not lacking. But Gillmore had tried to take Fort Wagner a few days earlier, and the attempt proved to be an abortive and bloody fiasco. The first assault had taken place without artillery support, but Fort Wagner obviously was going to be a difficult objective to capture.
Union planners ultimately decided three infantry brigades would take part in the attack. Brig. Gen. George Strong’s brigade would be in the lead with the other two in support. But who would be in the vanguard of Strong’s effort? It was a position of honor and great risk, requiring a regiment of uncommon coolness and bravery. Strong chose the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Colored at the urging of its commander, 25-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.
The 54th Massachusetts was a black regiment with white officers. Shaw, who was a scion of a prominent Boston abolitionist family, wanted to be given a chance to prove his men were just as good as other Union soldiers. His men had seen their first action only two days before and acquitted themselves well. They were tired, their clothes were damp from a previous rain, and they were hungry, but by the same token they were still determined to prove themselves.
As the shadows deepened and the bombardment abated, Shaw positioned his men for the coming assault. The black soldiers were mostly silent, a change from their usually ebullient mood when in ranks. The mood was not one of fear, but one of determination to see the task through. When a shell passed over, a few displayed some all too human nerves by shifting about, but quickly steadied after one black soldier made a joke. Referring to their Confederate foes in the fort, he said, “I guess they kind of expects we’re coming!”
The men of the 54th Massachusetts often had to deal with racism and negative stereotyping that was almost as deadly as enemy bullets. It was something of a miracle that they were in the Union Army at all. In the mid-19th-century virtually all whites considered Caucasians—especially those of Western and Northern European stock—to be biologically superior to all other races. This was a belief that was so deeply embedded in American culture it was taught in schools and even accepted by most educated people of the time.
When the American Civil War began, recruiting stations in the North firmly rejected black men who attempted to enlist. This was, after all, a white man’s war dealing mainly with secession and Southern rebellion. Northern abolitionists might see this fight as a crusade against slavery, but they were a distinct minority of the Union population.
Many white Union soldiers shared the prejudices of the time. They did not want to fight side by side with black soldiers because of their misguided belief in racial superiority. Racial bigotry aside, there were genuine doubts that the black men could do the job. In this line of reasoning even free blacks were descendants of slaves. A kind of cringing inferiority complex was deeply inbred from the centuries of servitude. It was so deeply inbred that even free blacks inherited this trait. William Channing Gannett, a teacher of former slaves, had firm opinions on the subject. “Negroes—plantation Negroes, at least—will never make soldiers in one generation. Five white men would put a regiment [of blacks] to flight,” he wrote.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln detested slavery but was no abolitionist. As the nation’s chief executive, he had other priorities. Hs main goal was to end the rebellion and restore the union as soon as possible; everything else was secondary to these main objectives. Lincoln also harbored some doubts about how well black men could perform in battle.
Another matter to be considered was the sensitivity of border slave states. Kentucky, for example, was a slave state with strong Union and Confederate sentiments. “I hope that God is on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” Lincoln once said. The president knew that if the border states left the union, the fortunes of war would shift in the Confederacy’s favor.
This fact was underscored when Union Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont issued a draconian proclamation that, among other things, freed the slaves of all Confederate sympathizers in Missouri. Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s oldest and best friend, advised the president to proceed cautiously on the sensitive political matter. “Do not allow us by the foolish action of a military popinjay to be driven from our present active loyalty,” he told the president. Lincoln took heed, and eventually Fremont’s own arrogance forced Lincoln to relieve him of command.
But as the war dragged on and Northern casualties mounted, there were fewer enthusiastic recruits willing to sign up. With enlistments declining, a new source of manpower had to be found. Many political and military officials in the North began to reconsider the possibility of black soldiers. In August 1862, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton authorized Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, military governor of the South Carolina Sea Islands, to raise five regiments of black soldiers.
The black soldiers proved their worth almost immediately. On November 7, 1862, the first of the five regiments, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, was mustered into Federal service. They experienced their first combat six days later when they were sent on a foraging expedition near Darien, Georgia. They ran into some Confederate troops, and though the resulting skirmish was small it loomed large in its psychological effect. The black soldiers were ex-slaves, yet they stood their ground and fought bravely.
In May 1863, two Louisiana black regiments took part in an assault on Confederate-held Port Hudson. The attack failed, but the sheer courage and tenacity displayed by the black soldiers was a source of wonder, even astonishment, to the white Federals who had also taken part. “The Negroes fought like devils, and they made five charges on a battery that there was not the slightest chance of their taking,” wrote a white Federal soldier.
The most famous black regiment of the conflict was the 54th Massachusetts, in large part because of its heroic assault on Fort Wagner. Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts conceived the idea of the regiment. A prominent abolitionist, he was certain black troops could make significant contributions to the Union war effort.