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
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