Turning Point: Assault on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts


Around a small hamlet in southern Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia was stymied and driven back after three days, July 1st through the 3rd, of bloodletting at the Battle of Gettysburg.

A turning point in the Civil War in retrospect.

On July 4, 1863, the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi River” capitulated to Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant.

A turning point in the Civil War in hindsight.

The evacuation of Tullahoma on the first day of July and the surrender of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River at Port Hudson, Louisiana on July 9, 1863, are two other significant actions in July.

Both can be considered turning points when studied through the lens of history.

Yet, there was a much more significant engagement, this time a Union defeat, that also turned the tide of the American Civil War. This assault took place on July 18, 1863 on Battery Wagner, part of the defenses of Charleston, South Carolina. In the waning moments of daylight, the 54th Massachusetts charged determinedly toward the sandy approaches and abates that was Battery Wagner. Their assault failed with the loss of their commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. In this example though, the heroism of the charge, the courage that these soldiers portrayed, and what their actions meant advanced the Union war effort.  

Battery Wagner, photo taken in 1865 (courtesy of 28thga.org)

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was an African-American or in 19th century parlance, “colored regiment.” The brainchild of Massachusetts Governor John Andrews, the African-American soldiers that comprised this unit was fighting for their race, to thwart the misconceptions that blacks could only serve in labor and non-fighting positions, and to overthrow the Southern slave oligarchy and institute universal freedom.

Battery Wagner would be the pivot in which African-American soldiers showed their fighting prowess and their ability, like their fellow white soldiers, to uphold the standards of the American military. After the failed assault on July 18, 1963, the repercussions reverberated around the country. Including in the Confederacy.

“The negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a Colonel as ever lived,” wrote Lieutenant Iredell Jones of the 1st South Carolina about the 54th Massachusetts attack. Even the Charleston Courier’s editor grudgingly admitted that the African-American soldiers showed “bravery” although he wished it was “worthy of a better cause.”

In the North, descriptions such as “heroic conduct” from the Boston Transcript or “fought with the desperation of tigers” as the Cincinnati Daily Gazette wrote to their readership depicted the accounting of the 54th Massachusetts’ assault.

“The experiment has begun” wrote a newspaper reporter for the Washington Reporter a Pennsylvania-based publication. With the news of Battery Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts were “magnificent for their steadiness, impetuosity, and dauntless courage.” As a fitting epitaph, the reporter wrote that if all Union troops, irrespective of color of skin showed “as single hearted as these soldiers, our difficulties would disappear.

Currier & Ives Lithograph of the 54th Massachusetts charge on Battery Wagner (Courtesy of the Library of Congress

There were skeptics from the beginning of the “experiment” to arm and equip colored regiments and the fighting on July 18, 1863 did not completely dispel them. “Not myself a believer in the arming of negroes, free or contraband, as soldiers, I must do this regiment the credit of fighting bravely and well.” Other newspapers of the more Democratic Party persuasion, while still hesitant to embrace African-American soldier policy, admitted that the 54th Massachusetts and their bravery and courage under fire, made them “entitled to assert their rights to manhood,” and showed their “undaunted courage” and that they were “evidently made of good stuff.”To conclude the importance of the assault in July, an editor of the Chicago Tribune summed up the cause of African-American soldiers serving the Union war cause by writing;

                    “[The] government and the people have woke up to the importance of negro                              soldiers in the conduct of the war…[the] thing is now settled–the negroes will                          fight.”

The impact and fallout of the assault was noticed in the highest circles of the Federal government. The judge advocate general, Joseph Holt, in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in August 1863, attested to;

                     “The tenacious and brilliant valor displayed by troops of this race has
sufficiently demonstrated to the President and to the country the character of
the service for which they are capable.”

Horace Greeley echoed the sentiment of how important that first test of combat was for the role and advancement of African-American soldiers in the war effort. Writing in 1865, he looked back on that summer two years prior, “It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-fourth had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand colored troops for whom it was a pioneer would have been put into the field.”

The eyes of the nation, from the president to the common citizen were on the black soldiers that courageously advanced in the surf and turf along the South Carolina barrier islands. If these men would have faltered, balked on the advance, let fear of death and destruction deter them, the cause of African-Americans would have been severely hampered.  Not only did they go in with gusto, but one of their number was awarded the Medal of Honor, for bringing the national flag back out of the conflict, never letting it touch the ground.

Medal of Honor winner William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts. He won the medal for his actions at Battery Wagner on July 18, 186

Before the end of the war over 179,000 African-American soldiers would don Union blue uniforms and help defeat the Confederacy and permanently end the “peculiar institution” of slavery and bondage. This number would constitute approximately 10% of the entire United States Army. Furthermore, another 19,000 African-Americans would serve in the United States Navy during the conflict. Over 40,000 would succumb to wounds or disease in defense of the Union and for the cause of freedom and liberty. In addition to aiding the Union war effort, the removal of African-American manpower affected the Confederate war effort, depriving them of manual labor; both in the military arena and on the home-front.

When one discusses the momentous month of July 1863 and the turning points of the American Civil War, the legacy of the 54th Massachusetts’s assault on Battery Wagner and what that created, must be part of the discussion. This batch of occurrences in the summer of 1863 turned the tide of the conflict and put the North on the footing to win the American Civil War.


*For an excellent study which was consulted as part of the research for this post, please consult, “Thunder at the Gates, The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America” by Douglas R. Egerton*




6 Responses to Turning Point: Assault on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts

  1. Thanks, Phill, for this excellent piece on the 54th and putting the regiment’s gallant performance at Ft. Wagner into the perspective of a “turning point.” The narrative arc of the 54th, fighting against resistance from within and outside of the military and breaking the pre-Wagner Civil War stereotype of the “Negro soldier” has lots of parallels with the WWII story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first blacks to fly combat missions for the U.S. Army. Many within the military opposed the formation of the Airmen, and many did what they could to undermine the “Red Tails” ever flying into combat. Like the 54th, they served in a segregated military, with white officers. And like the 54th, they would smash the stereotypes that initially had grounded them them from flying combat missions.

    Two of the surviving WWII vets in the veterans group I volunteer with served in the Army Air Corps, one as a Tuskegee Airman. I’ll make sure they receive your article, and share it, as well, with the 54th reenactors from my area who have volunteered to work in programs in several schools where I work.

    I appreciate your listing your “Thunder at the Gates…” reference for your research. It would be awesome to know your other sources for this article as well.

    civil Century white stereotype

    1. Hey Rob,

      Good evening and thanks for the kind words and passing on the article to the re-enactors of the 54th. I hope they enjoy the read and thank them for continuing to keep the history and role the 54th played alive for the next generation.

      I used sources from the National Archives and from the Tribune by Horace Greeley. If you want to send an email to the ECW email address I will be glad to send the links to you if you want?


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