Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - November 20, 2019

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
After Fort Sumter surrendered in April 1861, the Confederates used it to control access to Charleston harbor. Wikimedia

11. The 54th was sent to Charleston for another attempt to take the Southern port

Charleston was where the Civil War began, when the Confederates bombarded the still incomplete federal installation at Fort Sumter in April, 1861. For many in the north, the capture or destruction of Charleston was highly desired. With the Confederates holding Fort Sumter the US Navy could not enter Charleston harbor to assist in attacking the city. To the south, the Confederates had fortified positions on Morris Island and James Island which had to be reduced, allowing Fort Sumter to be bombarded by the captured positions. Union troops had occupied nearby Folly Island in April, 1863, which allowed them to attack Morris Island with artillery, but capturing it required an infantry assault.

At the northern end of Morris Island was the Confederate installation known to them as Battery Wagner, most of its heavy guns facing in the direction of Fort Sumter. Several smaller batteries dotted Morris Island from its southern tip to the open ground before Battery Wagner, known to Union commanders as Fort Wagner. Despite the forbidding nature of the defenses, Union leaders believed the Confederate stronghold could be captured by a joint army-navy operation, and four US Navy ironclad gunboats were assigned to the operation. The first attempt to seize Fort Wagner was launched in July, 1863.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
Union Major General of Volunteers George Crockett Strong. National Archives

12. The First Battle of Fort Wagner

On July 10, 1863, Union batteries on Folly Island opened fire on the Confederate positions on the south end of Morris Island. They were supported by heavy fire from US Navy gunboats under the command of Admiral John Dahlgren. The Confederates responded and the heavy bombardment served as cover for the movement of a brigade under Brigadier General George Crockett Strong to land on Morris Island. The brigade landed under fire, formed up and swept up several Confederate batteries before coming within range of Fort Wagner. The only approach by land was an open area directly south of the fort, which was protected to the west by swamp, and to the east by the sea. Strong paused just out of range of the Confederate defenders, to rest his troops and to prepare for the assault.

Strong launched his assault on the bastion at dawn on July 11. The dawn brought with it heavy fog, which covered his troops somewhat as they advanced over the open ground. Additional troops could not be brought forward to assist in the attack due to the fog and the heavy return fire from Fort Wagner. The garrison of over 1700 Confederate troops tore the attacking Union troops to pieces once they were exposed, and Union forces suffered 339 casualties, including 167 either captured or missing when the Union troops withdrew. Confederate losses were 12 men.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
The successful siege of Vicksburg and the victory at Gettysburg bolstered Union morale in July, 1863. Wikimedia

13. The defeat at Fort Wagner was a blow to Union pride

July 1863 had begun with victories for Union forces in both the Eastern and Western Theaters. The Army of Northern Virginia had suffered its first major defeat of the war at Gettysburg, and in early July was still retreating from Pennsylvania to the relative safety of Virginia. In the west the siege of Vicksburg, which had been a masterpiece of joint military – naval operations, had been successfully concluded when the Confederate garrison surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. The bloody repulse at Fort Wagner drew negative opinions over the competence of the command of troops and ships in the southeast, where recent command changes had occurred.

In June, Major General David Hunter had been relieved of command (he would later wreak havoc in the Shenandoah Valley, including burning VMI) and was replaced by Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore. Gillmore was an officer of the Corps of Engineers who had successfully reduced Fort Pulaski through the use of heavy guns. He believed that the capture of Fort Wagner would allow him to repeat his success at Fort Pulaski by reducing Fort Sumter, allowing the US Navy access to Charleston Harbor, as Fort Pulaski’s fall had allowed it to enter the Savannah River and close the port. To Gillmore, Fort Wagner had to be taken.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
A model of the Confederate Fort Wagner, which was built of sand, earth, and palmetto logs. National Archives

14. Fort Wagner’s defenses were formidable from both land and sea

Although initially constructed as a battery to protect the southern approaches to Charleston Harbor, which wound between the islands, Fort Wagner was a powerful obstacle to Gillmore’s plans to take Charleston. Its parapets were built of sand, reinforced with palmetto logs, which allowed them to absorb shot rather than repel it. They towered 30 feet over the beach below, and fourteen heavy guns were mounted behind the walls, offering a deadly reception to approach by water. The swamp to the west of the fort was all but impassable, troops mired in it would be exposed to devastating fire. The only side approachable by land was protected with a moat.

The moat was a ditch, five feet deep and ten feet wide, itself protected with sharpened stakes made of palmetto. Fort Wagner also contained a bombproof, covered with a beamed ceiling under ten feet of sand, and capable of holding up to one thousand men. Unlike Fort Pulaski, which had been reduced under the bombardment of rifled guns, the construction of Fort Wagner was such that heavy bombardment simply did less damage to the fortress. General Strong was ordered to resume his assault on the Confederate fortification, after additional troops were sent to reinforce his brigade. One of the units sent was the 54th Massachusetts, only two days after their baptism of fire on James Island.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
USS New Ironsides added eleven inch naval guns to the bombardment of Fort Wagner. Wikimedia

15. Heavy bombardment of the position was to precede a series of assault waves

Gillmore decided to repeat his success at Fort Pulaski through a lengthy bombardment of the fortification using both land-based and naval guns. Among the 11 ships assigned to the bombardment was USS New Ironsides, a sail and steam driven ship with an armor-plated hull which carried, among other cannon, fourteen 11-inch Dahlgren guns. In April 1863, the ship had been one of nine which bombarded Fort Sumter for several hours with little effect. Gillmore believed that the bombardment of Fort Wagner would be more effective. Gillmore was unaware of the garrison’s ability to shelter in the bombproof.

As additional protection, the Confederate garrison had prepared sandbags with which to cover the guns within the bastion, withdrawing the majority of the garrison in the bombproof, secure in the knowledge that any bombardment would have to be lifted once an infantry assault was launched. Had Strong used a bombardment prior to his assault on July 11 (he hadn’t, relying on surprise and the fog) this tactic may have been revealed. As he prepared for his second assault on Fort Wagner he planned a series of assaults, each launched to support its predecessor, in order to carry the fort following a lengthy bombardment.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
A plan for Fort Wagner showing the moat which protected it from an assault from infantry. National Archives

16. The artillery bombardment began on July 18, 1863

Shortly after 8 o’clock in the morning of July 18, one week after Strong’s failed assault of Fort Wagner, Union batteries began to pound its walls. As planned, just over half of the garrison sheltered in the bombproof. The rest, South Carolina troops under Lieutenant Colonel Gaillard, remained on the fort’s walls, taking what shelter they could. There were simply more men in the garrison than the bombproof could hold. The Union land-based guns were soon joined by those on the Navy ships, which sent both shot and shell into the fortifications. The pounding went on throughout the day. By midafternoon New Ironsides closed to within 300 yards of the fort.

The ship was accompanied by ironclad monitors, raftlike turreted vessels which carried one or two guns of immense size. At one point, Fort Wagner’s flag was shot away but a replacement appeared on the walls before Union officers could ask if the facility had surrendered. The entire area of the island and the sea about the ships was covered in thick, heavy, dark smoke from the guns and the bursting of shells. The fort seemed to change shape as the sand was shifted about by the impact of shot and the bursting of shells. After a full day of pounding, just as the sun was about to set, the massive bombardment suddenly increased in ferocity briefly, before coming to a halt.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
The advance of the 54th forced the troops to compress into each other as the path they followed narrowed. Wikimedia

17. The 54th Massachusetts was selected to lead the assault waves on Fort Wagner

Strong’s attack on Fort Wagner was planned to be a series of assaults by brigades, led by his own. He assigned the task of leading the assault across the narrow strip of sand bordered by sea and swamp on either side to the 54th Massachusetts. Though later accounts had Shaw requesting the honor, eyewitness accounts by participants in the battle do not. Captain Luis Emilio, who commanded Company E of the 54th during the assault, reported that when given the assignment Shaw paled, but did not protest that his recently arrived men were exhausted, even though Strong gave him the opportunity to do so.

“Your men, I know, are worn out”, Strong told Shaw, but the colonel, then 25 years of age, simply accepted the assignment. It was to be the second time the regiment saw action, the first having occurred just two days earlier. As the massive bombardment continued during the early dusk, Shaw formed the regiment at the end of the strip of sand, moving them forward at 7.45 PM. The 54th Massachusetts went forward with 624 officers and men. The plan was for the second wave of the assault to begin as the 54th hit the ramparts of Fort Wagner, with each successive assault following a similar timetable.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
A samewhat fanciful lithograph depicting the death of Colonel Shaw during the assault. Wikimedia

18. The first assault was hit with artillery and musket fire as in moved forward

A half dozen guns had survived the bombardment, and they were supported by a howitzer battery at Battery Gregg. The 54th advanced first at quick march, maintaining ranks with four companies abreast of each other, followed by the other four. As the strip of land they had to cross grew narrower approaching the fort they were funneled in toward each other, forming a point with Shaw at its tip. As they approached, the bombardment died out and the defenders of Fort Wagner emerged from the bombproof and took positions on the ramparts. About two hundred yards from the fort Shaw gave the order to charge. The Confederates responded with a withering hail of musketry and artillery fire.

The 54th struggled through the moat, which in some areas had been filled with sand by the bombardment, while under heavy and continuous fire by the Confederates. Shaw made it to the parapet, where as he shouted encouragement to his men he was hit by at least three shots, dying instantly. Without him the regiment struggled to crest the ramparts, but few did. Those that did break over the walls found fierce resistance from the Confederate defenders, who were outraged at the sight of black troops. Many never made it to the ramparts at all, falling between the moat and the fort itself. The 54th was still struggling at the ramparts when the next wave of the assault swept over the moat and drove towards Fort Wagner.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
The waves of attackers shown advancing under heavy fire. Wikimedia

19. Strong’s brigade breached the ramparts, but was eventually driven back

Accounts of the assault on Fort Wagner often begin and end with the assault of the 54th Massachusetts, but such was not the case that night. Strong’s brigade launched its attack on time, striking the Confederate ramparts at other positions, and in the southeast section of the fort units from Connecticut and New York managed to enter the fort and engage Confederate troops in hand-to-hand combat. Units following them were unable to reach the moat after Confederate howitzers fired on them from their flanks as they attempted to advance. Nearly all of Strong’s brigade was thrust into a chaotic scene of troops moving forward, others rearward, and all under a hail of fire from the fort and the flanks.

About 45 minutes after Shaw had launched his attack another brigade, commanded by Haldimand Putnam, was committed to the assault after having been delayed on the order of Gillmore, who had little idea of the carnage suffered by the Union troops. Putnam’s brigade fired at figures seen on the ramparts indiscriminately, adding friendly fire casualties to the already ravaged Union forces struggling to enter the fort. Several units of Putnam’s force managed to fight their way into the southeast corner of the fort, where they joined the survivors of the forces which had earlier managed to breach the ramparts. They called for additional troops to move forward to their support, as planned. None did.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
Rifle pits outside the ramparts were the scene of heavy hand-to-hand fighting during the assault. Wikimedia

20. The Union troops inside Fort Wagner shifted to the defensive

With no fresh troops moving forward to support them the Union troops within Fort Wagner shifted to defending themselves from Confederate counterattacks. Putnam tried to organize a fighting withdrawal before he was hit in the head, dying instantly. Major Lewis Butler of Ohio began withdrawing troops under fire, in small groups at first, while others used makeshift cover within the fort to resist Confederate assaults. Meanwhile fresh troops from Charleston were ferried to Morris Island and joined in the assault on the remaining Union troops. The Union men either died, surrendered, or ran for their lives. Many who attempted to surrender were shown no quarter.

Gradually the firing died down, though many of the wounded remained where they lay throughout the night. Confederate troops who spotted wounded black troops shot or bayoneted them. The daylong bombardment and the wave of assaults had cost the Confederate garrison 36 killed, and about 140 wounded. The Union troops suffered over 1,500 casualties. The 54th Massachusetts suffered 281 casualties, nearly half of the men who had advanced into battle behind Colonel Shaw. 54 were known dead, and another 48 were never heard from again, presumably they were also killed by the Confederates during the fighting or once it was over.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
The Confederates buried the dead of the 54th, including its commander, in a common grave. Wikimedia

21. Colonel Shaw was buried with his men, an intended insult by the Confederates

During the American Civil War is was customary for the bodies of officers killed in battle to be returned to the other side for burial. Where circumstances rendered the courtesy impractical, they were buried with full military honors, their personal effects preserved, and the location of the grave made known. The Confederates made no such gesture in the burial of Robert Gould Shaw, he was consigned, without ceremony, to the same common grave shared with the men of the 54th who had fallen. The event was reported in Southern newspapers, including the widely read Charleston Mercury, as a fate befitting a man who dared to lead black troops against the South.

The bodies of officers commanding and leading white troops at Fort Wagner were all returned and Confederate General Johnson Hagood informed Union commanders that Shaw had been killed, but that his body would not be returned. Numerous efforts by Northerners to recover Shaw’s body were stopped by his father, Francis Shaw, who announced that he was proud that his son was buried with the men he had led. Shaw wrote the 54th‘s regimental surgeon that he could “imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a bodyguard he has!”

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
Fort Wagner in Union hands near the end of the war. Wikimedia

22. The war was not over for Fort Wagner

After two bloody and unsuccessful assaults at Fort Wagner, General Gillmore came to the conclusion that the fortifications could not be carried by infantry. The only solution to reducing the position was siege warfare. Union troops including the shattered 54th remained on Morris Island. Naval bombardment of the fort became a routine. It was joined by steadily expanding land-based bombardment from heavy Union guns. The heavy pounding of the fort continued through the rest of July and entirely through the month of August.

By September the steady bombardment of the Confederate positions had rendered them useless; the guns nearly all dismounted and the garrison no longer capable of mounting a defense, though the idea of another frontal assault on Fort Wagner was unpalatable among the Union commanders. The siege continued until September 7, when the Confederates abandoned Morris Island and the remains of Fort Wagner fell into Union hands. By seizing the fort the port of Charleston was effectively closed, though Fort Sumter in the harbor and the city itself remained in Confederate hands.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
Fort Wagner was the 54th’s most famous engagement, but not its last. Wikimedia

23. The war was not over for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment either

The 54th remained in the Charleston region as it was reconstituted with replacements for the lost men and officers who died at Fort Wagner. In 1864 it was part of a Union expedition to Florida, landing at Jacksonville to conduct operations intended to disrupt the food supplies from the state reaching the main Confederate Armies in Virginia and Georgia. Following the Battle of Olustee in 1864 – a Union defeat – the 54th served as a rearguard for the retreating Union Army. It engaged several Confederate units before beginning its own orderly withdrawal toward Jacksonville.

While heading toward Jacksonville it was ordered to reverse itself and moved toward the Confederate position until it reached Ten-Mile Station. There a train loaded with Union wounded was stranded. When the regiment arrived it attached ropes to the train, including the broken-down locomotive, and pulled it about three miles to a Union camp, where the men of the 54th were replaced with horses and mules. The train was then pulled to Jacksonville, with the 54th remaining as escorts until they arrived. The distance to Jacksonville was about ten miles, and the journey took just over 42 hours before the wounded men arrived safely in the Union held city.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
The 54th Massachusetts distinguished itself at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, in 1864. Wikimedia

24. The 54th Massachusetts returned to South Carolina after the Florida expedition

In 1864 the 54th returned to operations in and around Charleston Harbor. In November, 1864, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments were part of an operation to sever the Charleston and Savannah Railroad in support of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea. At Honey Hill the Union troops encountered an entrenched Confederate force defending the railroad and several attacks proved that the Confederate position was too strong to be carried. Both the 54th and 55th were engaged in the fighting, which proved to be a defensive Confederate victory. The 54th withdrew to its position at Hilton Head.

In April 1865, the 54th saw its last action of the war several days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and just four days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The 54th engaged with Confederate troops, again in fortified positions near the town of Boykin, South Carolina. The battle, which was a sharply contested skirmish, ended when the 54th drove the Confederates from their position. Of the fifteen casualties sustained by the regiment in the action two were fatalities, including Lieutenant E. L. Stevens, the last Union officer to lose his life in the Civil War.

Robert Gould Shaw Led this Contentious All Black Regiment During the Civil War
Recruitment of soldiers of African descent expanded as the war went on, following the distinction earned by several units. Wikimedia

25. The 54th was the most famous of the black units of the Civil War

Because of the debacle at Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts became the most well-known of the black regiments formed during the American Civil War, a distinction which it retains. After the war was over the regiment was mustered out in South Carolina, and most men returned to their homes before the war. The bodies of the men killed at Fort Wagner were disinterred and moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, where they were reinterred with full honors, with the gravesite marked as Unknown. Presumably, that is where Robert Gould Shaw rests today, still with the troops he commanded.

By the end of the Civil War, entirely segregated black units numbered over 160 in the Union army, and nearly 180,000 black Americans served in them. Many others served in support roles, as laborers, blacksmiths and armorers, cooks and ambulance drivers, and as gravediggers. They served in the Navy as well, on ships which were not segregated, in a variety of naval disciplines. In 1863, while at Vicksburg, U. S. Grant praised the performance and discipline of the black troops under his command, stating that it was easier to enforce discipline on them than on white troops, firmly refuting the beliefs which opponents to their use had long stated.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“‘One Gallant Rush’: Robert Gould Shaw and his Brave Black Regiment”. Peter Burchard. 1965

“Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment”. Clinton Cox. 1991

“Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Robert Gould Shaw. Russell Duncan ed. 1999

“Civil War Boston”. Thomas O’Connor. 1997

“54th Regiment!”. Entry, Massachusetts Historical Society. Online

“Montgomery’s Raids in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina”. William Lee Apthorp, Lt. Col, United States Colored Infantry. June, 1864. Online

“History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863 – 1865”. Luis Emilio. 1894

“Fort Wagner”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Engineer and artillery operations against the defenses of Charleston harbor in 1863”. Quincy Adams Gillmore. 1865

“The Old Steam Navy: The Ironclads, 1842 – 1885”. Donald L. Canney. 1993

“Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry”. Brian C. Pohanka, HistoryNet. Online

“Second Battle of Fort Wagner”. Simon Adams, Encyclopedia Britannica. Online

“Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders”. Ezra J. Warner. 1959

“Confederate Florida: The Road to Olustee”. William H. Nulty. 1990

“54th Massachusetts Regiment”. Article, National Park Service. Online

“The U. S. Colored Troops in the Civil War”. Mark L. Bradley, Center of Military History, United States Army. 2015. Online