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54th Regiment remembered: Courage, honor and glory

Brian Wright O’Connor | 7/25/2013, 8:47 a.m.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, conceived in controversy,earned its laurels as the most storied black unit of the Civil War ...
The 150th anniversary of the first black Union regiment’s attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina was celebrated at the State House in Boston July 18. Among the speakers was Governor Deval Patrick, who laid a wreath in front of the Robert Gould Shaw Monument, dedicated to the memory of the 54th Regiment. Seated center is Winifred Monroe, the only living granddaughter of Henry Monroe, who was a 13-year-old drummer boy on that fateful day. Photo by Don West

Orders to move came that night for the exhausted troops. The brigade commander, George C. Strong, put the 54th in the vanguard of the attack on Fort Wagner, garrisoned by over 1,700 rebels. The only approach was a narrow spit of sand exposed to the cannons and musket fire at the end of the causeway as well as the guns of Sumter, James, and Sullivan islands.

The 54th made its way six miles through the sand and paused about 4,000 yards from the barricades and waited for nightfall. Ahead of them, nothing stood but open sand and brush and the sound of waves washing against the causeway.

At 7:45 p.m., Shaw gave the command to his troops lying prone in the sand with fixed bayonets: “Move in quick time until within a hundred yards of the fort, then double-quick and charge!” He unsheathed his sword, raised it in the air, and stepped forward at the front of the column.

The sand-spit narrowed as they made their way toward the breastworks. Men were forced to wade in water up to their knees. Two hundred yards from the massive berms, the night exploded. Cannon flashes lit up the muggy air. One observer described musket fire as “a sheet of flame, followed by running fire like electricity” along the parapet.

Shaw led his men toward the southeast bastion as men fell behind him to mortar rounds and minie balls in the lethal fusillade. He quickly crossed a ditch at the foot of the fortress and clambered the wall. At the crest, he stood outlined in the fading light and the muzzle flashes. “Forward, 54th!” he shouted, then fell forward, a volley of fire stopping his heart.

Undaunted, the troops continued to pour over the fortification. The flag-bearer, coming up behind Shaw with the heavy standard, also fell.

William H. Carney, a 22-year-old New Bedford seaman, caught the flag before it touched the ground in an action that would win him the first Medal of Honor awarded to an African American. Twice-wounded, Carney wrapped the flag around his body.

“The old flag never touched the ground,” he said after the battle.

Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass bellowed encouragement as the initial assault faltered under withering fire and heavy losses. Too few attackers made it up the wall and those that did were easy marks, outlined like Shaw had been against the sky. Those that made it inside were dispatched with musket butts and bayonets. Confederates rolled shells down the angled wall to explode among the troops rushing through the ditch.

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The 150th anniversary of the first black Union regiment’s attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina was celebrated at the State House in Boston July 18. Among the speakers was Governor Deval Patrick, who laid a wreath in front of the Robert Gould Shaw Monument, dedicated to the memory of the 54th Regiment. Seated center is Winifred Monroe, the only living granddaughter of Henry Monroe, who was a 13-year-old drummer boy on that fateful day.

The attack was hopeless. In less than an hour, more than 30 percent of the 600 men were killed or wounded. Reinforcements were bottled up on the spit. Gradually, the survivors began to withdraw. Pulling back, the regiment formed a line and awaited a Confederate counterattack that never came.

Shaw’s body was buried in a mass grave with his men. When his father learned of efforts to disinter his corpse and segregate his son in death, he wrote a objecting letter to the commander of the South, forbidding “the desecration of my son’s grave.” “We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen,” wrote the elder Shaw.

When the 54th monument was originally conceived as an equestrian statute of Shaw alone, the family once again objected, saying that in bronze, as in life and death, their son should stand with his men.

During the ceremony last week, Gov. Patrick placed a wreath at the base of the bas-relief.

The sculpture depicts an angel overhead guiding their way. The young colonel marches with his serried troops, their faces painstakingly rendered not as identical myrmidons, but as individual men – some young, some old, some bearded, some clean-shaven – soldiers in their own glory and right.