One of the most valorous exploits of the Civil War was the storming of Fort Wagner by the famous black regiment 54th Massachusetts Infantry of the U.S. Army.
The story of this band of free black men – led by white officers – has been told and retold through books and through the 1989 movie, “Glory.”
What is not so well known, though, is that, even though the regiment was planned and assembled in Massachusetts and led by officers from that state, Northeastern Pennsylvania had strong representation within its enlisted ranks.
Today is the 150th anniversary of that battle, which showed that men given little respect or advantage by society can still rise to heights of heroic achievement.
The 54th was not the first black regiment in the Army. That honor went to two regiments organized in Union-controlled coastal South Carolina in late 1862. Then, early in 1863, the strongly pro-abolition state of Massachusetts received Washington’s OK to recruit a black regiment of its own.
When insufficient numbers turned out from the state’s very small minority population, Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew headed a drive to establish special recruiting stations from Boston to St. Louis. Some of those stations were in Pennsylvania.
Eventually an estimated 140 black men from Pennsylvania joined the new regiment, which was designated the 54th Massachusetts USCT (United States Colored Troops).
Among the 54th’s Pennsylvania troops, one large group, 14 men, joined from the area of Montrose in Susquehanna County, described by historian William C. Kashatus in a 2007 “Pennsylvania Heritage” magazine article as “the most active abolitionist area in the Keystone State’s Endless Mountains.”
These men knew the evils of slavery first-hand. Some of that county’s black residents had been helped northward, at risk of their lives, along the famous “Underground Railroad” by the Wilkes-Barre abolitionist William Gildersleeve, Kashatus writes.
Monroe County contributed several men to the 54th as well. This fall, reported the Pocono Record recently, a Stroudsburg-area group will dedicate a plaque to all the black and Native American Civil War troops from that county.
There were some soldiers with Luzerne County ties as well. At least one man from Wilkes-Barre, Henry Johnson, joined the 54th, said historian Emerson Moss in his 1991 book “African-Americans in the Wyoming Valley.”
Yet another member of the 54th, Moses Morris, who joined from Clearfield County in the western part of the state, moved to Wilkes-Barre after the war. Morris was hit by a minie ball and shrapnel in the storming of the fort, writes historian Ryan L. Lindbuchler in his 2001 book, “Gone But Not Forgotten: Civil War Veterans of Northeastern Pennsylvania.”
While the 54th Massachusetts USCT had a long and meritorious history in the Civil War, and an estimated 1,100 men eventually served in its ranks, it is the attack on Fort Wagner (sometimes called Battery Wagner) that forever marked it as a fighting force of destiny.
Commanded by Bostonian Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment arrived in coastal South Carolina in 1863 – about 600 strong with its staff of white officers and its black enlisted personnel. It was part of the Army’s X Corps, which contained three divisions. The 54th was in the division tasked with capturing the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner, which protected the important Confederate port city of Charleston.
Fort Wagner would be a difficult objective. Located on Morris Island, it could be approached only across a narrow piece of land, which made it easy for the fort’s defenders to concentrate their fire on attackers.
First attack failed
An initial attack on the fort with other regiments failed. Then, early on the evening of July 18, Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore ordered a new series of attacks, with the 54th spearheading the first of them.
Taking heavy casualties from Confederate fire, the men of the 54th and the other regiments reached the fort but lacked the strength to overrun and capture it. In the process the 54th lost nearly half its personnel to death and injury, including Col. Shaw. A second attack by additional regiments also failed.
Technically, the battle was a loss for the Union. But reports of the 54th’s bravery soon circulated in the North, and black troops began to win the nation’s respect for their courage and toughness alongside their white fellow soldiers. Eventually, about 200,000 black troops served in the U.S. Army, according to the “Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War.”
The Fort Wagner attack was by no means the end of the line for the 54th Massachusetts USCT. In time, the regiment rebuilt its strength and served in many engagements until the end of the war in spring of 1865.
While the troops dispersed after the war, the regiment has never been forgotten.
Perhaps the most lasting honor paid to the 54th by its home state is the famous sculpture by Saint-Gaudens on Boston Common, placed there in the late 1800s. In that sculpture, Col. Shaw and his troops are depicted marching forward – forward to their destiny as one of the bravest and most storied regiments of America’s Civil War.