Today is the 153rd anniversary of the first time the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry saw combat. In two days, we will reach the 153rd anniversary of their second fight: the assault on Battery Wagner. It was there that the men of the 54th proved that they could fight . . . by losing nearly half of the men who went into battle.
The 54th Massachusetts was one of the first regiments of black soldiers raised during the Civil War. Theirs is a story of courage—of every kind.
It takes courage to do the right thing, even if people think less of you because of it. Robert Gould Shaw was in a good position as a captain when he was asked to command a regiment of “colored” soldiers. It was a post that would subject him to ridicule, maybe even ruin his future prospects. After initially refusing the position, Shaw reconsidered and accepted command of the 54th. He determined to prove that his men could fight as well as white men.
It takes courage to keep going, despite an uncertain future. When the 54th headed south, they did so knowing that the Confederate Congress had declared that every black soldier captured would be sold into slavery. Every white officer in command of black troops would be executed. Would their own government defend them, if they were captured? They had no idea. It was not until after the fight at Battery Wagner that the U.S. Government threatened retaliation on Confederate prisoners if the Confederacy went through with their word.
It takes courage to risk your life to save another person’s life. In their first taste of combat, the 54th skirmished on James Island, SC, contesting every inch and holding their position long enough to save the trapped 10th Connecticut. One Connecticut soldier wrote home after the battle: “But for the bravery of three companies of the Massachusetts 54th (colored), our whole regiment would have been captured…they fought like heroes.” Later, other white regiments greeted them with the cries: “Well done! We heard your guns!” and “Hurrah boys! You saved the 10th Connecticut!”
And then, there’s the courage exhibited on July 18, 1863.
A mere two days after James Island, the regiment faced a much greater test. Col. Shaw offered his regiment to lead the assault on Battery Wagner. It was a place of honor . . . but a costly one. Col. Shaw had his own reservations as to whether he would survive the fight. Yet as the regiment prepared to advance, one of his captains recalled of Col. Shaw, “His bearing was composed and graceful, his cheek had somewhat paled, and the slight twitching of the corners of his mouth plainly showed that the whole cost was counted.”
When Gen. Strong pointed to the flag bearer and asked who would carry the flag on if the man should fall, Col. Shaw set an example when he calmly replied, “I will.” He then told his men, “I want you to prove yourselves men. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”
The regiment advanced through cannon and rifle fire, across a ditch filled with several feet of water, across buried land mines, across sharpened stakes and felled trees with sharpened branches, and up the sloping wall of Wagner. Col. Shaw reached the top of the wall and cried, “Forward, 54th!” and fell dead.
Rather than lose their nerve at the death of their commander, the men of the 54th hung on. They fought hand-to-hand. Officers picked up rifles alongside their men. One man’s broken arm didn’t stop him from piling cartridges on his chest for Lt. Edward Emerson to use.
The regimental color-bearer, John Wall, fell, but Sgt. William H. Carney picked up the flag. He knelt on the wall with the colors until the regiment fell back. By the time he reached the hospital, Sgt. Carney had been wounded in the head, breast, arm, and both legs. He simply told the men in the hospital, “I but did my duty. The dear old flag never touched the ground.” For his courage, Sgt. Carney received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1900. His was the earliest action for which the Medal of Honor was awarded to a black soldier.
The regiment advanced with about 600 men and lost nearly 300. Although more Union troops finally joined the fighting, the 54th was initially unsupported. Nevertheless, in this, the second time they had seen combat, the men of the 54th did not falter or give up on their mission. They not only proved themselves men, but they proved themselves to be men of the highest caliber.