Effects of Canister Shot in the Civil War

This skull was discovered in 1876 on Morris Island, South Carolina, near the site of Battery Wagner, a powerful earthwork fort that had protected the entrance to Charleston Harbor during the Civil War.

The skull belonged to a man of African descent—a soldier of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, which had led the assault on Wagner on the night of July 18, 1863. Of approximately 600 men who made the charge, 256 were killed, wounded, or missing.

From the size of the wound, and the remains of the projectile itself, it can be determined what type of munition hit this man: an iron canister ball from one of two field howitzers known to have been used in the repulse of that attack.

 Had the 54th charged straight ahead, it would have been up and over and right into the heart of the fort. Unfortunately, commander Colonel Robert G. Shaw led the regiment to the left, against the lower, but heavily defended, center of the wall. Besides the four 32-pounders directly ahead, the mass of attacking men was subject to enfilading fire from the two recovered field howitzers above them. The regiment clung to the face of the fort for almost an hour, but eventually had to retire. Approximately 6000 more Union troops eventually were thrown into the battle to no avail. Wagner remained in Confederate hands for another four months, then was evacuated when its purpose had been achieved.

Source Credit: This Web site provides an introduction to the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) and contains official Government information. Its use is intended for members of the general public, news media and Army Medical Department beneficiaries.

Second Photo: Confederate 12 lb Canister Round.

Plan and Sections of Fort Wagner, 1863

An ill-fated assault was launched on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18th, 1863.  Leading the attack was the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first official African American units.  The 54th lost two-thirds of their officers and half of their troops in the assault, memorably dramatized in the film Glory


Today marks the Anniversary of the 54th Massachusetts regiment’s assault on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. The above photos show Robert Gould Shaw, Private Abraham F. Brown, the beach approach to Fort Wagner, and the tattered flags of the regiment. 

The movie “Glory” popularized the 54th and its mission, but here are some great sites with more information about these soldiers:

Massachusetts Historical Society - The 54th Regiment

The Civil War Trust - Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

National Park Service - Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment


July 18th, 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Wagner. During this battle, which was immortalized in the 1989 film Glory, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry–one of the first black regiments formed after Congress officially gave permission for black troops to be mustered–bravely led the first assault on the Confederate stronghold on Morris Island, South Carolina. As the regiment leading the assault, casualties were expected to be very high, yet the men of the 54th performed their duty with extreme courage and honor. 272 soldiers from the 54th were either killed, wounded, or captured following the Battle of Fort Wagner; almost all of the regiments commanding officers, including the famous Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, were either killed or wounded during the battle. 

Ultimately, the Union was unsuccessful in capturing Fort Wagner, and all of the regiments that took part in the battle were driven back. Of these regiments, however, the 54th was by far the most well-disciplined and courageous; as other Union regiments retreated, the men of the 54th formed a defensive line across Morris Island to protect other regiments while they attempted to regroup. Sergeant William Carney suffered severe wounds in his arms, legs, and chest as he carried the American flag across the battlefield, yet did not let go of the flag until it was safe behind Union lines; he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions 37 years later. The courage displayed by the 54th during Fort Wagner was so great that even Confederate observers reluctantly commended the regiment for their courage.

“The negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a colonel as ever lived.” –Confederate Lieutenant Iredell Jones, who observed the 54th’s fateful advance on Fort Wagner.

The bravery of the 54th at the Battle of Fort Wagner was a momentous turning point for blacks in the US military. Though many people in both the North and the South had feared that arming African-Americans was a dangerous move, and that colored troops would be too cowardly and ineffective to do well in battle, the actions of the 54th proved otherwise. The men of the 54th Massachusetts showed that blacks were just as capable as whites in fighting bravely for the United States, and helped to pave the way for other African-American soldiers in years to come.


The Shaw Memorial-By Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens-A 14 Year Labor of Love, A Symphony in Bronze-

Gaudens became consumed, a labor of love, he modeled 40 different men for the project. The sculpture’s origins began after the battle of Fort Wagner, when men of the 54th proposed a memorial to Shaw near the Fort and the mass burial site. Shaw’s father suggested at that time “The monument, though originated for my son, ought to bear, with his, the names of his brave officers and men, who fell and were buried with him.”

Unveiled May 31, 1897- led by 65 veterans of the 54th Regiment. Some of the officers wore their Civil War uniforms, Black veterans from the 55th Massachusetts and the 5th Cavalry were also present. Among the men of the 54th, Sergeant Carney carried the American Flag. The sight of him elicited cheers from the onlookers who knew of his exploits. The 54th veterans laid a large wreath of Lilies of the Valley before the monument. All of this deeply moved Saint-Gaudens:

“Many of them were bent and crippled, many with white heads, some with bouquets… The impression of those old soldiers, passing the very spot where they left for the war so many years before, thrills me even as I write these words. They faced and saluted the relief, with the music playing ‘John Brown’s Body'…. They seemed as if returning from the war, the troops of bronze marching in the opposite direction, the direction in which they had left for the front, and the young men there represented now showing these veterans the vigor and hope of youth. It was a consecration.”

Ninety years later the memorial inspired the film Glory which brought the history of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment to national prominence.

“…Receiving the regimental colors, the Sergeant pressed forward to the front rank near the Colonel, who was leading the assault. He received a severe wound in the thigh but fell only upon his knees.  He planted the Flag on the parapet and for shelter lay down upon the outer slope, where he lay until the second Brigade came up - Keeping the colors flying until the second conflict was ended.  When our forces retired he followed upon his knees.  Upon reaching the Hospital where lay his wounded companions., he said in reply to their cheers ’Boys, the old Flag never touched the ground.’”

Letter from Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts to the Secretary of War, 11/09/1863

From the service file of Sergeant William H. Carney with Company C of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry

If you have watched the movie Glory, you saw a recreation of the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. But a real-life hero from that battle was Sgt. William Harvey Carney, who was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900—37 years after the assault on Fort Wagner.

Carney’s actions were detailed in the above letter by Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts to Secretary of War Stanton, calling Carney a “brave man,” detailing his determination to keep the flag upright during the attack, and recommending a 30-day furlough so that he could visit his family in New Bedford, MA.

On July 18, 1863,  Sergeant Carney led the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry to the rampart amid a barrage of gunfire and planted the nation’s colors there. As the contingent fell back, the young sergeant once again protected the flag despite a rain of bullets that left him severely wounded.

This the act of heroism took place in 1863, but Sergeant Carney was not awarded the country’s highest military honor until May 23, 1900. Although his actions were the earliest by an African American to earn the Medal of Honor, 21 African Americans had received the Medal of Honor by 1900.

via Prologue: A Record of Valor

Les Miserables in the Soldiers' Camps.

(1880 volume of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, vol. 3 p 59. “The Barricade”, source)

Perhaps the most dramatic example of how the novel filtered into the imagination of the soldier came from Wilky James, the younger brother of William and Henry James. Wilky joined the Massachusetts 44th and then the famous black regiment, the 54th. In spring 1863, he wrote, “Today is Sunday and I’ve been reading Hugo’s account of Waterloo in ‘Les Miserables’ and preparing my mind for something of the same sort. God grant the battle may do as much harm to the Rebels as Waterloo did to the French.” That summer, Wilky was seriously wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner.

Really cool post on the NYT Disunion blog about the novel Les Mis in the lives of Civil War soldiers. Check it out here.


Colonel Robert Gould Shaw-

Robert Gould Shaw was Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. It was the first black regiment raised northeast of the Mississippi. Shaw proudly volunteered his regiment to lead the assault on the impregnable Fort Wagner where he was killed. He and the 54th were later memorialized by Augustus Saint-Gauden’s mythic monument placed on the Boston Common.

As one of the Connecticut troops penned to his mother, “But for the bravery of three companies of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth (colored), our whole regiment would have been captured. As it was, we had to double-quick in, to avoid being cut off by the rebel cavalry. They fought like heroes.”

Casualty List of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment from the Assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, 07/18/1863

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was one of the most celebrated regiments of black soldiers that fought in the Civil War. Known simply as “the 54th,“ this regiment became famous after the heroic, but ill-fated, assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina in July, 1863 (dramatized in the film Glory). Leading the direct assault under heavy fire, the 54th suffered enormous casualties before being forced to withdraw.

The courage and sacrifice of the 54th helped to dispel doubt within the Union Army about the fighting ability of black soldiers and earned this regiment undying battlefield glory. Shown here is one of the 54th’s casualty lists with the names of 116 enlisted men who died at Fort Wagner. Of the 600 men that charged Fort Wagner, 272 were killed, wounded, or captured.

The Second Battle of Fort Wagner

Who: Robert Gould Shaw and Quincy Gillmore (Union) vs P.G.T Beauregard and William B. Taliaferro (Confederacy)

What: Confederate victory

Where: Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina

Why: Fort Wagner was crucial to the naval defense of Charleston; the battle heralded the acceptance of African-American soldiers in the war

When: July 18, 1863

“The old flag never touched the ground” – Sgt.…

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Annie Kneeland Haggerty the Widow of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Colonel Shaw who was portrayed in the movie “Glory” met Annie at a pre Civil War opera party given by Shaw’s sister Susanna and were married on May 2, 1863.

She became a widow at the age of 28 when Col. Shaw was killed at Ft. Wagner. Annie’s story has for the most part been lost. The letters she wrote to Robert Shaw were burned by him at her request. After her husband’s death she lived abroad, she later returned to the US and was an invalid, her ailment is unknown, she never remarried.

The Last Time She Saw Him..

At 9 am, 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white officers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment began a parade march through the streets of Boston in full dress uniform. Twenty-five-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw rode at the head of the column. Twenty thousand people turned out to see the regiment off. Along the parade route were such dignitaries as Governor John A. Andrew, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass whose sons Charles and Lewis Douglass were members of the 54th. Robert Gould Shaw’s family, including his mother, two of his four sisters and his wife, stood on the second floor balcony of the Sturgis home located at 44 Beacon Street. 

When Colonel Shaw arrived at their location, he looked up and raised his sword to his lips. His seventeen-year-old sister Ellen, recalling how she felt about her brother Rob at that very moment, later wrote, “his face was as the face of an angel and I felt perfectly sure he would never come back.”

“The very flower of grace and chivalry, he seemed to me beautiful and awful, as an angel of God come down to lead the host of freedom to victory.”

- Poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s description of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw leading the 54th Massachusetts Regiment down Beacon Street and off to war.

Sergeant Carney, a Norfolk native, and his men were members of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment felled during the battle to capture Fort Wagner from Confederate forces on July 18, 1863.  When the color bearer was killed, Carney picked up the colors and led the attack on the Fort, though he himself was wounded several times.    For his singular act of bravery, Carney became the first African-American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.


James Henry Gooding’s letter (July 20th, 1863), discussing the 54th’s role in the failed attack on Fort Wagner. Gooding, a colored soldier, survived the battle and was later promoted to the rank of corporal in December 1863. Gooding was captured during the Battle of Olustree in February 1864, and died while in captivity at Andersonville Prison in Georgia on July 19th of the same year.

Letter published in On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier’s Civil War Letters from the Front (New York: Warner Books, 1992).

The painting The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground, which depicts the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863.

This image or file is a work of a U.S. National Guard member or employee, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain. by Rick Reeves