Give'em hell 54th!

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.

The 54th leads the charge on the fort and heavy casualties ensue from artillery fire. As night falls, the bombardment continues, forestalling progress. Attempting to spur his men forward, Shaw is shot and killed. He and his men were buried in mass graves. Shaw was singled out for what the Southerners considered the ultimate insult-by being interred with his fallen black troops.

Instead of insult, Shaw’s father said: “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has!”

That site is no longer visible; the land has eroded into Charleston harbor, and the remains of Colonel Shaw and his men have been washed out to sea by Atlantic hurricanes, other sources say..after the war the Union Army disinterred and reburied all the remains—including, presumably, those of Col. Shaw—at the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina, where their gravestones were marked as “unknown.”

Fort Wagner was never taken by Union forces. The sacrifice of the 54th, which lost nearly half its men in the battle, was not in vain; their bravery resulted in the Union accepting thousands of black men for combat which President  Abraham Lincoln credited with turning the tide of the war.

This image or file is a work of a U.S. National Guard member or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

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


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.

On July 18, 1863, Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and 272 of his troops were killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina. Shaw was commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, perhaps the most famous regiment of African-American troops during the war.

Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion, 1863.

“Caption: ‘Charleston and its environs. 1. Charleston and Savannah Railroad.– 2. Ashley River.– 3. Charleston.– 4. Cooper River.– 5. Wando River.– 6. Castle Pinckney.– 7. Fort Ripley.– 8. Fort Johnson (James Island).– 9. Stono River.–10. Fort Sumter.– 11. Fort Moultrie.– 12. Battery Gregg (Cumming’s Point).– 13. Fort Wagner.– 14. General Gillmore’s Advanced Batteries.– 15. Captured Works (Morris’s Island).– 16. Light-house Inlet.– 17. Union Battery (Folly Island).– 18. Iron-clads and Wooden Ships.–19. Hotels.– 20. Sullivan’s island and Rebel Batteries.– 21. Moultrieville.–22. Mt Pleasant.– 23. Breach Inlet.– 24. Shem Creek.– 0,0. Rebel Batteries on James Island.'”

Image from The Charleston Museum Illustrated Newspapers Collection, held by the The Charleston Museum Archives


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.”

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.

On August 5, 2002, the ironclad warship, U.S.S. Monitor, was raised from the floor of the Atlantic, where it had rested since it went down in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during the Civil War.

“The Unexcelled Bijou” Gem Glass Slide.

“A gem glass slide depicting three scenes. From right to left: “The attack on Fort Wagner”, “The capture of Petersburg”, and “Naval combat between the Monitor and Merrimac”.”

Glass slide from the Walter Pantovic Slavery Collection held by the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.

Lieutenant Colonel Warren Adams of Co. H, 1st South Carolina Infantry Regiment In Uniform

Lt. Colonel Warren Adams commanded of the 1st South Carolina Infantry Regiment in defense of Battery Wagner at Charleston. He fended off the attacks of the African American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Attacked twice on July 11 and July 18, 1863, he repelled the Union forces with modest losses. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed in the second assault on the fort. It eventually succumbed to siege when the Confederates abandoned it on the evening of September 6-7, 1863. The Battles of Battery Wagner are the source of the 1989 movie Glory. Adams went on to serve the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry and was shot from his saddle at the Battle of Bentonville in 1865.- He was the son of South Carolina Governor James Hopkins Adams and Jane Margaret Scott Adams.

  • Purchased from: Cowan’s Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio, June 2015.
  • Forms part of: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress).

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

William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Received the Medal of Honor for His Actions During the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Carney served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a Sergeant and took part in the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. He received his medal for saving the American flag and planting it on the parapet and although wounded, holding it while the troops charged. But recognizing the Federal troops had to retreat under fire, Carney struggled back across the battlefield, and although wounded twice more, returned the flag to the Union lines. Before turning over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, Carney modestly said, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

Luis F. Emilio 1844 - 1918 was a Captain in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Author of “A Brave Black Regiment”

 He served as a Captain of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, whose charge on Battery Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina, is depicted in the movie, “Glory.” He served with the regiment throughout the war, joining May 22, 1863, and mustering out March 27, 1865. After the devastating repulse at Fort Wagner left all of the unit’s ranking officers, including Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, dead or wounded, Captain Emilio emerged as the 54th Massachusetts’ acting commander. He was the author of “A Brave Black Regiment” in which he recounted the exploits of the regiment. It is still in print and remains a prime resource for Civil War researchers.

A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863-1865  Captain Luis F. Emilio (Author)

In January 1863 the Union War Department authorized the creation of “a special corps” composed of “persons of African descent"—the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, commanded by Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Hundreds of free blacks enlisted. When the 54th Massachusetts spearheaded the suicidal charge against Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, the regiment was showered with acclaim, but that defining event was not its only illustrious moment. After the devastating repulse at Fort Wagner left all of the unit’s ranking officers dead or wounded, Captain Luis F. Emilio (1844–1918) emerged as the 54th’s acting commander. A Brave Black Regiment offers an unparalleled, moving, inside view of the entire history of the 54th Massachusetts, from recruitment through disbandment. With a new introduction, rare, previously unpublished photos of Emilio and members of the 54th, the complete regimental roster, and his lengthy appendix concerning Confederate treatment of black prisoners-of-war.