Saturday, July 20, 2013

July 18, 1863: 54th Massachusetts attacks Fort Wagner, SC.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (Colored) had trained at Camp Meigs in Readville for 100 days.  Although it was not the first African-American unit created, it was the first unit to be created in a northern state.  At the suggestion by Frederick Douglass, this regiment would consist of only freeborn, educated men of color. An enlistment bounty of $100 was paid to each recruit. 

Among the recruits were two Warren County, NJ men:  James Furman, of Washington, in Company E, and Isaiah [or Isaac] Cass, of Hackettstown,  in Company C.   By May 14, 1863, there were 1,000 recruits in the regiment. 

The regiment was commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and Lieutenant Colonel Norwood Hallowell.  Shaw had been a captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, and Hallowell had been an officer in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry.  Although all the commissioned officers were Caucasian, African-Americans served as non-commissioned officers.  The regimental Sergeant Major was Louis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass. 
In June 1863, the 54th Massachusetts shipped out of Boston for Beaufort, South Carolina - arriving there on June 3.  The regiment was attached to Colonel James Montgomery's 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry during the attack and pillage of Darien, Georgia.  After objections were made by Shaw to General David Hunter, the 54th Massachusetts was sent to St. Simons Island, where there was nothing to do but drill daily.  When Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore replaced Hunter as commander of the Department of South Carolina, Shaw complained that his men were not given combat duties in which to prove themselves.  
Gillmore was planning the siege of Charleston, South Carolina and the capture or destruction of the Confederate harbor forts.  On July 8, the regiment was ordered to join General Alfred Terry's division on Folly Island for an assault on James Island.  At dawn on July 16, the 54th Massachusetts and the 10th Connecticut Infantry Regiment came under attack by Confederate cavalry and infantry on James Island.  Federal pickets were forced back, but Company K of the 54th fought and withdrew in good order, slowing the Confederate advance.  The Federal line began to collapse around the 10th Connecticut, but the men of the 54th Massachusetts acted as the rear guard, retreating slowly while holding back the Confederates and preventing the 10th Connecticut from being surrounded. The 54th suffered 45 casualties: 14 killed, 18 wounded and 13 missing.  General Terry sent a message to Colonel Shaw commending the regiment for its conduct.
The Federal landings on James Island had been a diversion to pull Confederate troops away from the southern end of Morris Island - the objective of the main attack.  Confederate General Pierre T. E. Beauregard, commander of Charleston, had sent additional troops to James Island, which allowed General Gillmore's troops to capture the southern end of Morris Island.  However, Federal troops could not capture Fort Wagner on the northern end of Morris Island.  The 54th Massachusetts and other regiments were ordered to leave James Island and join the main force on Morris Island.  Federal troops marched across marshy James Island in the rain on the night of July 16. They waited on Folly Island on July 17 for transportation to Morris Island.  The 54th Massachusetts arrived on Morris Island late in the afternoon on July 18.
Colonel Shaw reported to General George C. Strong, a fellow Massachusetts soldier, who was commanding the Federal siege of Fort Wagner.  Strong offered Shaw the chance to lead the attack on Fort Wagner.  During the Georgian and Victorian periods, it was considered an honor for a unit to be the "Forlorn Hope" and lead an attack on a fort - even though high casualties could be guaranteed. For the survivors, there was glory and bravado in the sheer bravery of volunteering to be the "Forlorn Hope."  General Strong knew the men of the 54th had not slept nor eaten in at least two days and told Shaw there was no dishonor in turning down the offer.  Shaw said his men were "strong of heart" and could still lead the attack.
Shaw called up his troops to meet the general at the front.  General Strong told the men he, too, was from Massachusetts, and he expected them to bring honor to the state.  The general asked Color Sergeant John Wall to step forward with the National Colors.  In a loud voice the general asked, "If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?"  Shaw replied, "I will."  The men of the 54th cheered their colonel.
Colonel Shaw said to Lieutenant Colonel Hallowell, "I shall go in advance with the National Flag.  You will keep the State Flag with you.  To his men he said, "We shall take the fort or die there."  Shaw went down the ranks talking to each of his men telling them this was the chance for them to prove to the nation that Americans of color can fight bravely and with honor.   
At 7:45 p.m., Colonel Shaw walked to the front with his troops.  He told his men to move forward down the narrow strip of land toward the fort in quick-time until they were within 100 yards of it and then charge at the double-quick.  The forward advance began when Shaw shouted, "Forward my brave boys!"  Following the 54th Massachusetts in the attack were the remainder of the 10 Corps: the 6th Connecticut, the 48th New York, the 7th New Hampshire, the 100th New York, and the 62nd Ohio infantry regiments. 
The narrow approach to Fort Wagner was approximately one mile from the spot where the Federal Army stood.  It was bounded by the sea on one side and marshland on the other.  Approximately sixteen guns and many muskets were trained on the sandy strip from fort Wagner as well as guns from Fort Sumter, James Island, Sullivan Island, and Fort Gregg, which was also on Morris Island. More than 9,000 shells were fired at the fort from land and sea by the Federal Army and Navy.  However, the majority of the 1,785 soldiers inside the sand fort remained safe inside a giant bombproof during the barrage and were ready to jump to their posts when the infantry attacked.  Federal intelligence reports had incorrectly estimated only 300 troops were inside Fort Wagner.
When the 54th was within a couple hundred yards of the fort, the Confederate gunners     and riflemen "welcomed" the Federal troops with a volley of exploding shells and mini-balls.  Large holes were blasted in the front ranks of the 54th, but the soldiers still advanced, while closing their ranks as best as they could.  At the double-quick, Shaw led his men through a ditch and abatis of the outer fortifications.  the men reached the 50-foot wide moat trench in front of the parapet. The moat was filled with water five feet deep.  The soldiers inside the fort began to throw grenades and lighted artillery shells      down onto the men of the 54th.  The men of the 54th crawled their way up the sandy wall toward the top of the parapet.  Shaw reached the top, pointed his sword toward the inside of the fort and yelled, "Onward Fifty-Fourth!!  Shaw was killed by a musket shot to his chest.
As Color Sergeant Wall was following Colonel Shaw with the National Colors, he was shot down by musket fire.  Sergeant William H. Carney, of Company C, grabbed the flag before Wall and the flag hit the ground.  Carney held the flag to his chest and rushed to the top of the parapet and planted the flag next to the Regimental Colors.  Carney was wounded in both legs, the right arm and in his chest, but he refused to give up the National Colors nor let them fall to the ground.
The 54th Massachusetts had gained a foothold inside Fort Wagner for at least an hour during heavy hand-to-hand combat.  However, reinforcements were still under cannon fire on the beach and did not arrive in time to help the 54th hold their position and take the rest of the fort.  Many of the officers were killed or wounded.  When Lieutenant Colonel Hallowell finally ordered his men to retreat, Captain Luis F. Emilio rallied the walking wounded and formed a battle line 700 yards from the fort.  Sergeant Carney staggered out of the fort and back to the new battle line - still clutching the National Colors to his breast.  Carney refused to let go of the flag until he reached  the field hospital tent, more than a mile away.  Carney collapsed from the loss of blood while still clutching the flag, and he said to the men in the tent, "The old flag never touched the ground, boys."  
Sergeant Carney never fully recovered from his wounds.  He became the first Black American to receive the Medal of Honor.
The walking wounded of the 54th Massachusetts held their battle line until they were relieved at 2:00 a.m. on July 19.  Of the 5,264 Federal officers and men who took part in the attack, 246 were killed, 880 wounded and 389 missing.  Of that total number of losses, the 54th Massachusetts suffered 34 killed, 146 wounded   and 92 captured or missing.  
Privates Cass and Furman survived the battle and served in the Federal Army until the end of the war in 1865.
The men of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner, along with the men of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards and the 1st Louisiana Engineers of the Corps D'Afrique at Port Hudson; and the 9th and 11th Louisiana Native Guards and the 1st Mississippi Colored Regiment at Milliken's Bend in June 1863 had proven themselves in battle.  The Federal Government authorized the formation of several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops.   Recruitment began in 1863.  Warren County's recruits had to enlist in a federal recruiting office in Easton or at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia.
State and County records are very sketchy regarding Warren County's men in the U.S. Colored Troops.  the following is a list of those men we were able to identify, but it should not be considered a complete list.
The following men enlisted in 1863 and 1864: 3rd Regiment, USCT:Thomas McIntyre, of Belvidere, Company F;  8th Regiment, USCT: Abram Andrews, of Washington, Company I; 22nd Regiment USCT: Edward W. and Thomas Duncan, of Greenwich Township, Company B; Francis and Samuel Henry, of Vienna, Company F; Corporal Abram Smith, of Buttzville, Company D; William Townsend, of Belvidere, Company I [killed in action at Fort Harrison on September 30, 1864]; and Marshall White, of Washington, Company I; 25th Regiment USCT: Benjamin B. Andrews, of Washington, Company A; George B. Andrews, of Washington, Company E; Peter Campbell, of Washington, Company A & B [died at Fort Pickens, Florida on September 27, 1864]; Edward Kelsey, of Washington, Company A; and Jonathan E. Saunders, of Hackettstown, Company A; 26th Regiment USCT: Thomas Benjamin, of Asbury, Company H;  32nd Regiment USCT: John Jones, of Belvidere, Company A; and William H. Lee, of Hackettstown, Company F; 34th Regiment USCT: George E. Harris, of Hope [now Mt. Lake], Company E; 41st Regiment USCT: John DeHart, of Greenwich Township, Company B [was present at General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House]; 43rd Regiment USCT: Abraham H. Harrison, of Phillipsburg, Company B; 45th Regiment USCT: Sergeant John Fisher, of Phillipsburg, Company F; Thomas [James], of Mansfield Township, Company E; Samuel [Nathan] Hackett, of Phillipsburg, Company C; and John H. Young, of Harmony, Company A; and 127th Regiment USCT: George and Nelson Blankins, of Asbury, Company H.
Anson P. White, alias Thomas Jones, of Oxford Furnace, had two enlistment records        under two names, according to New Jersey state records.  On February 17, 1864, as Thomas Jones, he enlisted in Company B of the 32nd Regiment USCT.  He stayed in the 32nd, as Jones, through the war and was mustered out with his unit on August 22, 1865 at Hilton Head, SC.  However, the State contends White, while at Camp William Penn, also enlisted as Anson P. White, in Company I of the 43rd Regiment USCT on May 14, 1864 to collect an enlistment bounty and then deserted from the 43rd on June 3, 1864 before the 32nd Regiment moved out of the same camp.
The Belvidere Intelligencer listed another William Townsend, of Belvidere, in a list of recruits. The newspaper stated William Townsend enlisted in a "colored regiment" at Easton in March 1865.  There was no mention of the unit, and since the state records note William Townsend being killed in action at fort Harrison in 1864, it is an assumption that this second William Townsend was the son of the man killed in action. However, no records could be found.
Copyright 1999-2013: Jay C. Richards


  1. This is absolutely awesome! Great research here. Im an african american and from Somerset County. Many African Americans in NJ assume that before the 1980's that there were literally NO African Americans in rural Warren County NJ. This article not only disproves that, but shows that they were willing to sign up and fight for the freedom of their enslaved brethren down south. Its amazing to see that some of these men from West Jersey served and died in places like Fort Harrison, one of the last big battles of Civil War and Fort Pickens Florida, where a scurvy epidemic devastated the black troops stationed there. It must have seemed sooo far way from home. I can only imagine how different they were (the warren county men) from their fellow Soldiers of Color that were from VA, the Carolinas, Ohio, Pennsylvania etc. Excellent research. I hope to find the same for Somerset and Morris County.

  2. Looking for info on Lt. Aaron Wilks. Co B and adj of 6th NJ killed at Williamsburg May 5 1862 Contact me at Thanks