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.