The Assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863

Fort Wagner 02I expect we’ll see a great deal of commentary this week on the events of 150 years ago today, highlighting the efforts of the 54th Massachusetts and its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, to take Battery/Fort Wagner (we see both) to take this Confederate position. I’m sure many people will make reference to the movie Glory, which awakened many people, it seems, to the notion that African Americans fought for their freedom during the American Civil War: by 1864 one out of every seven Union soldiers was African American, according to some accounts.

There were real pioneers in telling this story, including Luis F. Emilio (who served in the 54th), George Washington Williams, and Dudley Taylor Cornish. They reminded us of the service of the 54th, and both Williams and Cornish reminded us that the 54th was simply one regiment: the black military experience was so much more than that. Sometimes the story of what happened on July 18 is also detached from the larger tale of repeated Union efforts to get at the Confederate defenses around Charleston (contrary to the claims of Glory, the Confederates eventually abandoned Wagner). And there are those folks who like to point out the shortcomings of Glory for various reasons.

To me one of the most interesting dynamics in how this moment in the history of the 54th Massachusetts is portrayed (and we forget that it would fight again) is in the relationship between Shaw and his men and how we in turn view Shaw. I recall that when the movie came out that one reviewer criticized Matthew Broderick’s portrayal of Shaw as too weak: the reviewer preferred a Chamberlain-like rendering. In fact, however, Broderick came close to nailing Shaw, and a slightly different (and more faithful to the historical record) movie would have shown us a Shaw who I find more sympathetic precisely because he wavered and hesitated.

However, the killing of Shaw soon became a centerpiece of images of combat at Fort Wagner. For example, the chaos of battle often looks like this:

Fort Wagner 4

Shaw is nowhere to be found here. Elsewhere, however, he was the center of the piece:

Fort Wagner 3

That evolved after the war into this:

Fort Wagner 6

And by the time it came to the movie, there was this, which I thought was just too much.

No wonder the Shaw Memorial looks like this … because it is the Shaw Memorial:

Shaw memorial

Maybe Shaw’s family had it right after all when they suggested that the best resting place for Shaw was in a burial trench alongside his men, because they were all part of the same enterprise, and there was no reason to elevate Shaw.

Now, there are some recent images that have moved away from focusing on Shaw. One is at the top of the post. Another is here:

Fort Wagner 5

Much more has been written about Shaw and Civil War memory (especially when it comes to the Shaw Memorial); we’ve also often focused on Battery Wagner (as opposed to Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend) in terms of the impact of the battle on impressions on whether blacks would fight and how would they fight (here the contrast with the New York draft riots becomes obvious), and people have wrestled with the representativeness of the 54th’s experience.

What I’d like to suggest is that those of us who study Civil War memory (and goodness knows how popular that approach has become in the last two decades) recall that memories continue to be made, and someday our memory of past memory is going to come under scrutiny as well. So, while it’s all well and good to remember the events of today and highlight the 54th and Shaw, let’s also remember that the story of the black military experience continued in ways that we need to examine more closely.

24 thoughts on “The Assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863

  1. Bryant Henderson July 18, 2013 / 12:38 pm

    It would also be well noted that among the defenders of Battery Wagner were the men of the 51st North Carolina Troops, who were all from counties in the Cape Fear River in the southeastern corner of the state. As a regiment in Clingman’s Brigade, they had been shipped by railroad less than two weeks before from guarding the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad in Duplin County, NC, to Georgia, then back up to Charleston. On the day of the attack, they endured a naval bombardment that would only be surpassed by the one on Fort Fisher in 1865. At the beginning of the assault, they courageously manned the works and successfully defended against, not only the first assault that involved the 54th, but two others. They were engaged from 8:30 pm until 11:30 pm. There was heroic discipline and commitment shown on both sides that night.

    • Joshism July 18, 2013 / 8:48 pm

      8:30pm to 11:30pm? So this one be one of the few intentional nighttime engagements of the war?

      • Bryant Henderson July 19, 2013 / 6:40 am

        Yes. I have no knowledge of why the assault was made at night. Perhaps (and I apologize for speculating. It drives me crazy when I read others doing it.) the naval bombardment needed daylight to see whether their cannonade was accurate. As a native of southeastern North Carolina, I know that direct sun on the beach in mid-July would be brutal.

        • SF Walker July 19, 2013 / 11:27 am

          Since the deck was already heavily stacked in favor of the defenders, due to the constrictive nature of the terrain and the fort’s formidable defenses, a night attack might have been planned to help hide the attacking US infantry so they could get closer to Wagner’s breastworks before being seen.

  2. Eric Wittenberg July 18, 2013 / 12:44 pm

    It’s easy to forget that the men of the 54th came from a lot of different states, and not just from Massachusetts, as a result of the recruiting efforts of Frederick Douglass. There was a good-sized community of free blacks living in Columbia, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and a large number of them traveled to Boston to enlist in the 54th. They fought with the 54th at Battery Wagner and elsewhere, and then returned home. I had the honor and privilege to visit their gravesites with Scott Mingus a couple of weeks ago, and it came as a real surprise. Until that visit, I had NO idea that Pennsylvania men served in the 54th (and 55th Massachusetts, too, as well as some who served in USCT regiments). Their graves are unmarked, and there are cenotaphs placed on them to commemorate these men and their sacrifices. It was a moving experience.

  3. James F. Epperson July 18, 2013 / 12:46 pm

    I liked Broderick’s portrayal. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, but I liked the indecision he showed—after all, he went from captain to colonel in one jump.

    I thought I read someplace that Shaw did lead the way over the parapet and was shot almost instantly—in other words, many of the iconic images are correct. Is that an error? Or do we simply not know?

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 18, 2013 / 1:10 pm

      The question is why certain images focus on Shaw. I tend not to worry about what someone remembers reading somewhere because I need something more than that.

      • jfepperson July 18, 2013 / 6:51 pm

        Hell, at my age I sometimes have trouble remembering where I left my glasses the night before 😦

        Why focus on Shaw? One can come up with lots of reasons, but unless the artist left a record of why he drew it as he did, we can’t really be certain. FWIW, of the images you posted, I like the second one—it captures the chaos of the attack best, I think. And the Memorial in Boston is just outstanding.

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 18, 2013 / 10:02 pm

          One can point to a tradition of battle art that focuses on the death of a prominent leader (take John Trumbull as an example).

          • jfepperson July 19, 2013 / 4:28 am

            Very true. Also, we should not overlook the commercial aspect of painting to a potential buying audience that is predominantly white.

            Another comment on the ones you showed: The more I look at it, the *less* I like the first one. It looks static and staged.

  4. Donald R. Shaffer July 18, 2013 / 12:56 pm

    Gee, Brooks, in the spirit of silly alternate history, which you have indulged in lately, I was wondering in the shower this morning how the Second Battle of Fort Wagner might have gone differently if the assault of the 54th Massachusetts had been preceded by the Union Army dropping a daisy-cutter bomb on the Confederates in the fort.

    Seriously, I wrote in earnest on this engagement earlier this week in my blog, putting it into some helpful context, and indulging in my propensity to be the social historian I am at heart. Check it out:

    Hope all is well over in Gilbert …



  5. Patrick Young July 18, 2013 / 1:18 pm

    Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Irish immigrant who sculpted the Shaw monument, did much to create the iconic image of the 54th. He was praised for creating highly individuated black soldiers in the bas relief, but there are no shirkers, no hold-backs. Everyone is marching forward with a sense of purpose. The movie Glory ends with the St. Gaudens but I don’t think it references any other previous image. Where I live, African Americans who talk about the film never mention the Matthew Broderick character. The film is seen as depicting a black struggle for freedom. Shaw is sort of irrelevant.

    Also interesting is that whenever black Civil War soldiers are mentioned, someone inevitably mutters “Glory” in a way that other films don’t come up. Glory is a sort of shorthand for “our people fought, they were forgotten, the movie brought them back. Glory”

  6. Scott Smart July 18, 2013 / 1:52 pm

    Aside from the “Glory” aspects, I am interested in the overall question of the generalship of Quincy Gillmore whose reputation seems to be a bit controversial.

    • jfepperson July 19, 2013 / 4:32 am

      Gillmore was a competent engineer who wanted to be a field commander, something he was not good at. Not the only one, alas.

      • SF Walker July 19, 2013 / 11:12 am

        That’s true–the Union’s best and brightest weren’t typically assigned to the Department of the South.

    • John Foskett July 19, 2013 / 4:21 pm

      Scott: You may be interested in the attached link, which is an article done for the General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

      Click to access GetTRDoc

      • SF Walker July 20, 2013 / 10:40 am

        That is an excellent article, John—thanks! I, too, think a Union approach to Charleston via James Island would have been the way to go. Had Benham not made his unauthorized attack at there at Secessionville in June ’62, perhaps the Union leaders would have decided on a campaign there instead of the restrictive environment of Morris Island, with its less desirable strategic possibilities.

  7. Chris Evans July 18, 2013 / 2:19 pm

    I think Shaw should get quite a bit of the bravery along with his men. Here is a rich young man who could have sat the war out and did not. He went to the front and fought bravely and died a death like so many young men on both sides did.

    For ‘Glory, I thought Matthew Broderick did a very good job. Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman stole about every scene they were in. It is one of my favorite Civil War films and I can’t really judge it objectively anymore because like ‘Gettysburg’ and ‘Andersonville’ (two other examples) I grew up with it.

    One of the things I like to think about Shaw is the seeming intersecting of all of those brave upper crust Bostonians. Shaw’s death influenced Theodore Lyman to join the war effort and I guess we wouldn’t have his wonderful accounts of Meade and Grant from the last two years of the war. There is Charles Russell Lowell married to Shaw’s sister and Lowell died heroically at Cedar Creek. Of course you also have Oliver Wendell Holmes and (one of my favorites) Henry Livermore ‘Little’ Abbott who Theodore Lyman watched die at the Battle of the Wilderness.

    I guess what strikes me about all of these young men is the feeling that they had to serve and Shaw and the others destroy the idea of a ‘Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s fight’. I guess they and their comrades really where some of the bravest men that ever lived.


    • Patrick Young July 18, 2013 / 10:29 pm

      I always think of Shaw as a Staten Islander.

  8. Gornde July 19, 2013 / 8:04 pm

    According to first hand accounts, Shaw did die at the top of the works, but the movie showed him dying on the slope and the troops responding to his death, surging forward. It matters not – his leadership was key in molding the 54th Mass into a good regiment. His parents wish that he simply remain buried with his men says it all, and is the essence of shared sacrifice between officers and men that was the rule, rather than the exception, in the Civil War. The scene of his body being rolled into the trench with his soldiers remains for me one of the most powerful images of the war.

  9. Michael Confoy July 19, 2013 / 9:20 pm

    Never the less, my 13 year old son found the movie to be inspirational. For that I am glad.

  10. Matt McKeon July 20, 2013 / 2:44 pm

    It seems like each war gets one or two battles that stand in popular memory for the whole war. For African Americans in the Civil War its Fort Wagner. For the Civil War generally its Gettysburg. For World War One is the Battle of the Somme for the British, for the US in WW2 the landing at Normandy or Battle of the Bulge.

  11. Gerald July 17, 2015 / 10:24 am

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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