I would like to have witnessed the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by Federal troops on the evening of July 18, 1863. The fort—a massive affair made of logs, earth, and sand—stood at the northern tip of an island that curved around into Charleston Harbor. Its capture was to be preliminary to taking the city.
The assault was led by the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment recruited in a free state. In command was Col. Robert Gould Shaw, of Boston blue blood and of true heroic character. At starlight, the regiment—600 troops and 22 officers— made for the earthwork at the doublequick, with orders to seize it by bayonet assault. The Confederate forces within opened up a devastating fire from cannons, naval guns, and mortars. Men were falling on all sides; every flash of fire, a survivor would say, showed the ground dotted with the wounded or killed. Colonel Shaw gained the rampart before he was shot through the heart.
Among the 158 wounded from the 54th was Wilky James, 1st lieutenant and adjutant to Colonel Shaw; the eighteen-yearold younger brother of William and Henry James. There were 12 known dead, but there were 100 missing, some dead, some captured. Half of the 54th Massachusetts was wiped out; successive attacks by other units during the night ended with 1,515 casualties (the Confederates suffered 174).
It was a complete disaster. But something about the “brave black regiment,” as it came to be called, so gallantly leading the way in this venture (at this moment in a war that many believed to be about slavery and freedom) ignited the Northern imagination. It was celebrated over the years in poems by Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Robert Lowell, and many others, and in essays by Frederick Douglass, Justice Holmes, and others. When the memorial frieze to Colonel Shaw and the 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was inaugurated in Boston in 1897, the chief speaker was William James.