18 Jul 2018

Glory Indeed: Remembering Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts

Glory Indeed: Remembering Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts

They called the movie about it Glory for a good reason. While the Union Army failed to take Fort Wagner 155 years ago today, the commitment and valor shown by the 54th Massachusetts as they spearheaded the attack that fateful evening in 1863 would transform the Civil War and inspire an award-winning film more than a century later.

The 54th Massachusetts’ attack on Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, was the fourth time in the war that African-American troops played a crucial combat role, and skeptics began to understand the character and bravery of those willing to fight for freedom and the rights of citizenship. As a result, African-American recruitment flourished, enhancing the Union manpower advantage over the beleaguered Confederacy.

On July 18, 1863, after a heavy land and sea bombardment, 5,000 Union soldiers advanced on Fort Wagner and its 1,800 defenders. The 54th Massachusetts, a Boston-based regiment of free African-Americans commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, led the charge. Fort Wagner’s guns inflicted appalling casualties, but the 54th pressed on to the fort’s parapet and even breached the fort’s walls. The Union attack pushed the Confederate defenders to their limits, though the battle proved a Union defeat.

Today, the fort no longer stands, but the legacy of the brave troops who fought there lives on. Thanks to the efforts of a grassroots coalition that included the American Battlefield Trust, you helped save 118 acres of historic ground on Morris Island for the benefit of future generations. Commemorate the anniversary of this pivotal battle by learning more about the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and their contributions to the American Civil War, and the Trust's efforts to save this history.

The Civil War In4: Black Soldiers

Historian Hari Jones summarizes the experience of African American Civil War soldiers, from emancipation, to the authorization of United States Colored Troops, to their experiences on the battlefield.

If You’re Ever in Boston

The next time you’re in Boston, stop by the Massachusetts Historical Society to see the sword Robert Gould Shaw carried into his final battle at Fort Wagner. Meanwhile, learn how the sword was lost – and found again, in an attic, just last year.

Map of the Assault on Fort Wagner

See how Gillmore’s attack on Fort Wagner was waged with this map of the battle action that fateful day on Morris Island in 1863.

The Flag of the 54th Massachusetts

Our own Garry Adelman takes a look at remnants of the 54th Massachusetts flag in this episode of our War Department™ video series.

American Battlefield Trust

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