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“Tonight For Freedom”

May 2024
12min read

At Fort Wagner the Negro soldier was asked to prove the worth of the “powerful black hand”

In the spring of 1863 the Union government tried hard to break into the strongly defended harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. In April navy ironclads attached the Confederate defenses and were repulsed; joint army-navy operations were then planned, and in July the army seized the lower end of Morris Island, a long, low stretch of tlie coast on the southern side of the entrance to the harbor. It was believed that if all of the island could be taken, siege guns could be mounted so as to destroy Fort Sumter and other harbor defenses and clear the way for Union warships.

The chief Confederate stronghold on Morris Island was Battery Wagner, an earthwork near the northern tip, some 2,600 yards south of Fort Sumter. The earthwork ran clear across the sandspit which forms the northern portion of Morris Island, and attacking troops had to approach head-on along a narrow neck, of sand. A preliminary attack failed, and a larger one was arranged for the night of July 18. Leading it was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a Negro regiment with white officers, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. This battle would draw nation-wide attention because Negro troops had seen little action and many doubted the Negro’s capacity as a soldier.

Everything was quiet except the sea, and that—ebbing as the purple dusk congealed to darkness—sucked back through the marshes and hissed along the narrow strip of beach with the sound of ravening mouths. The air was acrid, partly from the odor of the marsh, partly from the brine of the sea, but mostly from the sting of burned gunpowder. Though the bombardment of 41 guns, aided by the cannon of six ironclads riding a stone’s throw offshore, had ceased three hours ago, no breeze had risen to dispel the hot scent of the cannonade. It had lasted eleven hours, but Fort Wagner remained—slope-sided, parapeted and silent, as impregnable as ever, it seemed, in the thickening twilight. It would have to be stormed.

Shortly before seven o’clock a fog-laden brcexe drifted in from the sea, and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment tried to relax. It was impossible. They were raw troops, having had only a sharp skirmish on James Island two days earlier to learn from. For two years, while the battles of the Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville were fought and lost, certain leaders and champions of freedom had urged, pressed, harangued President Lincoln to recruit black men for war. “With every reverse to the national arms, with every exultant shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperilled nation to unchain against her foes lier powerful black hand,” cried Frederick Douglass. Charles Sumner and Samuel Pomeroy echoed him in the Senate, and Horace Greeley in the press. Carl Schurz, minister to Spain, came across the ocean: “Afr. President, all Europe is looking. …” And now at last that black hand was unchained, a thousand pairs of black hands. Mut they could not relax.

In this battle, and in what was left of the war, they would have much to contradict and more to affirm. They would have to contradict all those charges made against them: that they would not fight, for “at a crack of Old Master’s whip” they would Hee the field in abject terror; that even were they endowed with courage they were too ignorant to learn the arts of combat; that this was, after all, “the white man’s country and the white man’s war”—charges that Lincoln himself seemed to believe sufficiently to keep black men from battle. Now by their conduct in this engagement they would have to prove that they possessed all those qualities—confidence, resolution, and valor—summed up in the word “manhood.” They would have to affirm their faith that the ultimate mission of this war was not only to save the Union but to free the slaves. They would have to vindicate their belief that “liberty won only by white men would lose half its lustre.”

Gathered squatting and sitting in little knots to themselves, some distance from the seasoned white troops that had occupied the southern end of Morris Island for several days and that were also to be committed to this battle, the men of the 54th were not aware of the approach of their brigade commander. But suddenly a low-pitched voice called out, “Men! Men of the 54th!” They scrambled up quickly, tensely, snatching rifles and fixing bayonets, and pressed together just as Brigadier General George C. Strong, flanked by aides and orderlies, rode up. The General clapped his hands, making a sound like a pistol shot, but his voice was quiet when he spoke.

“Men of the 54th—free men. We will attack.” He paused dramatically, and for a moment there was a silence as palpable as a knife thrust. His gaze swept the disordered press of men. “You will lead it,” the General said. Then a cheer rose uncertainly, gathered strength, but never really swelled to the lull, and years later a man of the regiment was to say that they were choked up with emotion.

With the barest gesture of salute, General Strong cantered away.

The emotion that choked up the cheers of the 54th may have been gratitude, it may have been pride, it may have been fear. It may have been all these and more, so many feelings so compacted that they could not be defined. The heart too often ravaged cannot defend itself. “I remember how it was,” wrote a young man of the regiment to his father, and in the moment of knowing how it was he had wondered how many black men would have to purchase dignity with death. True, he could remember the day the 54th marched through Boston, and the cheers of the 20,000 who turned out to watch the Negro soldiers on their way to Battery Wharf, where they embarked for South Carolina on the steamer De Malay. But he also remembered the mocks and taunts, the gibes of certain northern Negroes grown cynical and bitter; and the jeers of white men, not all of them hooligans, set to the cadence of a march:

In battle’s wild commotion I won’t at all object If a nigger should stop a bullet Coming for me direct.

A nigger’s just an ape-thing, A thing of no respect. If lie should stop a Minié ball I shan’t at all object.

Lewis Douglass—the younger son of the Negro abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who with his brother Charles had been the first in the state of New York to enlist—remembered. But also he remembered his father’s answer to those jeers. “Better even die than to live slaves. … The day dawns; the morning star is bright upon the horizon! … The iron gate of our prison stands hall open. One gallant rush … will fling it wide, and tour millions of our brothers and sisters will march out to liberty.”

Now, as the troops formed and moved forward over the hard-packed sand of the narrow causeway, no one felt good, and especially none of the men of the 54th. They had arrived on Morris Island only a couple of hours before sundown. They had had neither rest nor refreshment for two days. Moreover, a sudden severe thunderstorm had drenched them, and as they moved to the van their steaming uniforms weighed heavy as lead. There were six regiments (all but the 54th Massachusetts were white) in the ist Brigade, commanded by General Strong; but since the plan was to commit them a regiment at a time, the 54th was ordered up on the double so as to widen the distance between it and the supporting 6th Connecticut.

There was an air of suspense as they advanced the depth of a regiment. From the fort, less than 400 yards ahead, no gun spoke and no light shone. Had Wagner been knocked out by the bombardment and evacuated? Soon they were almost within musket range, an excellent massed target against the fading sky and the tawny beach. Still nothing from the fort. Perhaps the rumor that went whispering sibilantly through the ranks was true. Perhaps in that hour of blackening rain and thunder the Confederates had scampered down the hidden sea lace of the fort and escaped in small boats to Sumter.

But, indeed, the opposite had happened. Wagner had been heavily reinforced.

All at once the cry “Heads up!” rang out from the rear, and the column of moving men on the left pressed inward against their companions as a horseman went tearing by. There was no room for dispersion on the road between the sea and the marsh. Two more mounted men galloped past. The first was General Strong. He was easily recogni/ed by his whitegauntleted hands, with which he held the reins high and loose. It was not certain who the others were, but word came back that one was General Quincy Gillmore himself, commander of the entire Federal assaidt against Charleston. A moment or two more and the troops were ordered to halt. They did not have long to wait. General Strong’s voice spoke out. The forward men could hear well enough, but the breeze, blowing stiffly now, whipped the voice before it reached the rear, and the men there caught only tatters of it.

“Free men … 54th …” The General first expressed his regret for sending them into battle without food or rest, but ”… hour has struck. Men … tonight for freedom …” It was the kind of prebattle address fashionable since the days of the Caesars. It was the siren voice of glory “luring them to the bloody and inhospitable trenches” of Wagner. A little more ol this and then the three horsemen, General Strong the last, rode back down the line, but slowly, fixing the troops with steady gaze, and all three holding salute.

But speechmaking was not yet over. Colonel Shaw, the regimental commander, stepped forward. He had been until recently a captain in the and Massachusetts and had fought at Winchester and Antietam. The commission for his new command had been carried to him like a votive offering by his lather from Boston to Virginia. Ordinarily Shaw’s manner was uncommonly impressive, but in the dusk before the battle, survivors said later, the man shone with “angelic light.” And even if this was merely the normal glorification of the heroic dead, all sources are agreed that Robert Gould Shaw was an exceptional human being. Between him and his men flowed a strong tide ot leeling. He gave them his patrician-bred understanding and sympathy; they gave him gratitude and their implicit faith. He was for them a symbol of what men could be—of what perhaps this war was !ought to prove they themselves could become once it was over. He was a talisman. As if to prove it, the skies, lowering and threatening since the storm, cleared and a few stars winked as Shaw stepped forth. A quite spontaneous cheer went up.

It took him only a minute to make his speech. He told them that much depended on this night’s work. He reminded them that an act of the Confederate Congress made the Union’s Negro soldiers outlaws, denied them the protection of the captured, and that as prisoners they might be sold into slavery, summarily shot, or hanged. The military design of the assault, he said, was to In’each the defenses of Charleston. But was this all, or even the main? Not by any means. Lifting his drawn sword, the Colonel pointed to the emblematic pennon of white silk, which bore the figure of Liberty. The simple command “Forward!” rang out, and the mass took stride on the shelterless narrow flat.

Before they had gone forty paces, being now within musket range, the bastion front lit up from end to end with a sheet of running flame. It was a terrific shock, for the men half believed and half hoped that the bombardment had silenced the Rebel guns.

With that first blast, this was proved a delusion. Men dropped like ripened fruit in a windstorm. But in that instant glow of sulphurous light before the smoke and dust rolled out, Colonel Shaw saw his first objective—a place forward where the gourd-shaped island flared out before it narrowed to a neck of land on the tip of which blazed Wagner. Urging his men to it, Shaw loosened his ranks and charged them into th;it murderous hail of canister, era ne, and musket ball.

The ramparts of Wagner crackled and roared, spurting the blue flames of small arms and the reddishyellow blasts of cannon. And as if this were not enough, a storm of solid shot thundered in from the left. The Confederate batteries on Sullivan’s Island had opened up, sweeping the flat with a broom of fire. Men fell in swaths: others pushed ahead.

Indeed, there was nothing else to do and no place to go but ahead. For now the Rebel guns at Cumming’s Point and Sumter were lobbing shells onto the sandspit, plowing up the ground in the rear ol the 54th and pinning down, at least temporarily, the supporting regiments. Somewhere off on the seaward flank, but apparently in the path of fire, General Strong realized what the situation was and ordered a double-quick charge. He did not live to see it executed; nor could it have been executed. All the 54th could do was creep into a musketry fire that was as solid as a wall of steel. The rest of the ist Brigade, consisting of five regiments, staggered in behind.

Almost every step produced confusion. No one knew the terrain in the dark. The regiments backing up the 54th got scrambled like eggs. Colonel Barton of the New Yorkers found himself in the midst of troops from Maine. His own men had gone on ahead, where they briefly occupied some rifle pits hastily dug for the assault ol seven days before. When he did find his men they were coming back with their wounded. Meantime a company ol Connecticut men had got bogged down in the marshes of Vincent’s Creek off to the left and, caught in the heaviest fire from Sullivan’s Island, were churned to bloody mincemeat in the mud. The and Brigade came in under Colonel Putnam, who kept shouting, “Forward! Forward!” and, losing his men, himself advanced so swiftly as to overtake the rear of the 54th. The hailstorm did not slacken. The din was “like a million locomotives straining on a grade.” There were now eight thousand men caught on a spit of land 300 yards at its widest. Two thousand more were to come. But none of them, except those who died, stayed i’or long.

It seems impossible that no one on the Union side knew about the ditch. Eight days before, on July 10, the Union landing on Morris Island had been effected, and that same day an attack was pushed within 600 yards of the fort, but the position was untenable. On July i i General Gillmore’s dispatch to General Halleek noted: “VVe now hold all the Island except about one mile on the north end, which includes Fort Wagner, and a battery at Cumming’s Point. …” On the twelfth a parallel was commenced for the emplacement of siege guns a thousand yards from Wagner, and other measures were taken preliminary to the assault, timed for six days later. Since it is impossible to conceive that among these measures there was none for scouting and reconnoitering the terrain, it must be supposed that in the furious, milling confusion of the infantry attack the ditch was forgotten.

There it was, several feet wide and filled with four feet of water. The glacis of the fort sloped down to it, and the glacis was Colonel Shaw’s next objective. Only the musketry and grenades of the enemy could reach here. But the going was tough. The sandy slope was pitted from the bombardment, and it was dark, and darkness was the doom of this attack. With Shaw at its crest, the first wave of the 54th plunged headlong into the unseen ditch. A few men panicked and drowned, but most scrambled out, shouted warnings to those who followed, and started up the glacis. Musket fire hissed into them. Grenades screamed down. Beyond the ditch, and halted by it in utmost confusion, a company of Maine men began firing on the slope, and Captain Luis Emilio, bringing up the rear of the Negro columns, shouted out, “Don’t fire on us! We’re the 54thl” But his shouts were ineffective. He ordered a retreat, and some of his men slid down the scarp and waded back across the ditch.

Meanwhile the brave, or reckless, Colonel Shaw and about ninety men, Sergeants Lewis Douglass and John Wall among them, had clawed their way to the top. A sudden blaze of calcium light revealed them mounted on the parapet. For a shocked moment the Confederates who saw them there stopped firing, as if in awe or in tribute to such daring. How could they have come up the glacis slope through that savage storm? Yet there they were, plainly to be seen in the blaze of light, their colonel waving his sword, and next to him the color sergeant, John Wall, carrying the flag. Both were hit at the instant Lewis Douglass’ sword sheath was blown off him and he, uninjured, was blasted back down the scarp. Wall staggered and dropped the flag, but the wounded Sergeant Carney caught it and slid away. Colonel Shaw, however, toppled inside the fort, and some eighty of his “reckless and insane men,” said the Confederate General Taliaferro’s report, “who seemed to insist upon immolation,” jumped in after him. There they fought hand to hand around Shaw’s lifeless body until every man of them was killed.

The assault on Fort Wagner was totally repulsed and over in an hour, but the Union forces did not retire completely. Captain Emilio gathered what was left of the 1st Brigade, dug in on a line 700 yards from the fort, and kept up a desultory and useless fire through half the night. Scattered elements of the and Brigade fronted the enemy at other points. Until two o’clock in the morning they waited for the order to renew the attack, but it never came. The sand had drunk its fill of blood.

In the morning, “as the sun rose and revealed our terrible losses, what a rich harvest Death had gathered during the short strugglel” Fifteen hundred men had fallen, dead and wounded. Two hundred and fortyseven of these were officers and men of the first Negro regiment recruited in the free states. When a request was made for the body of Colonel Shaw, a Rebel officer is alleged to have sent back the scornful reply, “We have buried him with his niggers.”

This contempt for the “niggers” had once had other uses than simple hostility. It had been organic to the social structure of the slave system and had stood at the center of its elaborate ritual. It had fixed the idea of the white man’s immutable superiority, and it had been the element of steel in a towering emotional edifice. If contempt for the Negro had made it sound reasonable beyond argument for southerners to declare, “Nigras, sir, are brute beasts,” it had also given meaning—had, indeed, been the meaning—to the northerners’ ditty:

To the flag we are pledged, all its foes we abhor, And we ain’t for the nigger, but we are for the war.

But though the contempt would survive, its uses had been blasted into nullities by the shot and shell at Wagner. No amount of contempt thereafter could completely hide the truth that clear-eyed men north and south now dimly perceived on the horizon of the future. For Wagner was more than just another battle: it was a turning point—not in the war itself, but in the basis upon which the war was fought. Men’s minds now could never again comfortably harbor their old habits of thought, nor their hearts the same certainty of social virtue, nor their spirits the same equable emotional weather. Wagner was a moment in history after which the national destiny would change, and to meet this change institutions would be modified and reared in doubt and hope, with curses and prayers. At Wagner Negroes had won the first right of men—the right to die for freedom.

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