Storming Fort Wagner

Nancy Shively on the Massachusetts 54th Regiment at Fort Wagner

Today, July 18th, marks the anniversary of the Civil War battle in which the legendary Massachusetts 54th Regiment heroically led a Union assault on Fort Wagner, SC. My first acquaintance with this regiment was through the Academy Award winning movie Glory. (If you haven’t seen it run…do not walk… to the nearest video store/computer and rent/download it. It is one the best of the many Civil War movies out there. )

For the uninitiated, the 54th Mass was one of the first all-black units to serve in the Civil War. They distinquished themselves in the ultimately unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner while singlehandedly putting to rest any lingering doubts the US Army might have had about African Americans’ abilities as soldiers. Sadly the 54th sustained many casualties in the battle including their white commander Col. Robert Gould Shaw.

Knowing only the basic facts of the story, I wondered if the 54th was recognized for its efforts at the time. When I searched the Archives I found many articles about the creation and training of the regiment. My question was answered.These guys were pretty much rock stars. On May 30, 1863 the newspaper The Christian Recorder reported on the unit’s departure from their training camp near Boston:

“One of the most enthusiastic, exciting, and demonstrative local military events of the war took place to-day, to commemorate the departure of the 54th Massachusetts (colored) Regiment for South Carolina. The ranks of the regiment were entirely full. The men were dressed in the regular United States uniform, and splendidly equipped, and headed by a full band of colored musicians. The regiment made a magnificent appearance. After being reviewed on Boston Common by Gov. Andrew, the regiment embarked in the steamer De Malay, which is to sail immediately. The march of the regiment through the city was attended with the most enthusiastic cheering.”

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

Okay, with that kind of vivid description who needs a movie? Anyway, despite all the adulation and the promise of equal pay, the government reneged on that promise and offered only $7 a month to the black soldiers as opposed to the $10 white soldiers were paid. In response the men of the 54th boycotted the paymaster’s table on payday and took nothing.

The Christian Recorder, Sept. 23, 1865:

“The ordinary chances of battle were not all which the Massachusetts 54th had to encounter… the refusal of pay to the colored soldiers was a swindle and a scandal, so utterly without excuse that it might well have seemed to them as if it were intended to produce a mutiny. Few white regiments would have borne it for a month; the blacks maintained their fidelity in spite of it for a year and a half. When the 54th was offered a compromise, the men replied with one voice, “No. We need the money you offer; our families are starving because the Government does not pay us what it promised; but we demand to be recognized as soldiers of the Republic, entitled to the same rights which white soldiers. Until you grant that, we will not touch a dollar.” It was a sublimer heroism, a loftier sentiment of honor, than that which inspired them at Wagner. They would not mutiny because of injustice, but they would not surrender one iota of their claim to equal rights.”

The regiment was eventually given equal pay including back pay.

The Liberator — Nov. 25, 1864:

“A circular from the Paymaster General’s office says: “Where colored soldiers are mustered upon the rolls as free on the 19th of April, 1861, such muster shall be authority for the Pay Department to pay said soldiers from the time of their entry into service to January 1, 1864, the difference between the pay received by them as soldiers under their present enlistment and the full pay allowed by law at the same period to white soldiers of like grade.” The Secretary of War has also given orders to the same effect.”

I don’t know if there are any events planned in 2013 for the sesquicentennial of Fort Wagner but I hope so. That kind of courage and character should always be remembered.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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