B. Shallop, Salem History Correspondent
On July 18, 1863 the first black regiment raised in northern states, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, led an courageous assault on the Confederate positions at Fort Wagner South Carolina. The stories behind the assault on Fort Wagner strike at the heart of the horrible legacy of race and slavery which haunts this country to this day. The devastating assault touched many people of Salem Massachusetts. We must forever value the contributions of those throughout history who have fought, struggled, and sacrificed for freedom and equality.
South Carolina Secedes
In 1861 South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union. The state legislature declaring that:
“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” South Carolina took particular aim at how northern states had even allowed their citizens to organize against the institution of slavery, declaring that Northern States; “…have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection”.
So much for the argument of “States Rights”.
Rather than respecting the outcome of a national election or even entertaining the possibility that the American Flag might someday maybe represent rights for African Americans, the state of South Carolina instead chose to tear down that flag and open fire on Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Shortly after the evacuation of federal troops from Charleston, Fort Wagner was constructed on the beach at Morris Island to defend the city from a Union assault.
Abolitionist Sentiments in Salem
At the northern end of the Eastern Seaboard, Salem Massachusetts had long been a hotbed of those Abolitionist societies so abhorred by secessionist South Carolina. Like many coastal New England cities before the Civil War, Salem had a small but vibrant and politically active black community. The heart of this activist black community was the Remond family, who ran a successful catering business out of Hamilton Hall in Salem, a hairdressing business, and also invested in property and shipping interests in the city. As early as 1832 Free Women of Color in Salem had founded the “Female Anti-Slavery Society of Massachusetts” in Salem and opened its membership to any women with abolitionist sentiments, regardless of race. Salem schools were not only the first to be integrated in America, but they would also employ Charlotte Forten, one of the first black teachers to teach an integrated classroom.
Salem’s leading families often hosted fundraisers for abolitionist causes, Salem’s political leaders were outspoken against the interests of slave owners in Congress, and Salem residents often acted nobly but illegally to thwart the efforts of slave catchers operating under the protection of the Fugitive Slave Act. When President Lincoln called for volunteers to fight for the Union in the wake of the firing of Fort Sumter hundreds of Salem Citizens eagerly enlisted. Later in the war, when the federal government authorized the raising of Black Regiments to serve the Union Cause, the people of Salem were heavily involved in recruiting and equipping the first northern regiment of free people of color: the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
The Participating Regiments
A total of 14 Union Regiments participated in the assault on Fort Wagner that day, including a black regiment, the 2nd South Carolina, comprised of slaves liberated from Plantations in South Carolina. Salem contributed greatly to the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Known as “The New England Guard,” the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was raised early in the war and had seen plenty of action by July 1863. Two of the regiment’s Captains (George Austen and John Daland), two lieutenants (George Garner and Jas B Nichols), the regimental Chaplain (Rev George Wildes), and dozens of enlisted men were from Salem. Other cities and towns from the North Shore were also well represented in the ranks of the 24th. The Regiment first mustered into service at Readville (then an independent village, today the southernmost locality of Boston), and saw action at Roanoke Island, New Bern, Tranters Creek, Whitehall, and Seccessionville before assisting in the assault at Fort Wagner.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was the first black regiment raised from Northern states after President Lincoln authorized the enlistment of black troops on January 1st 1863.
While under federal law black troops were not permitted to serve as officers, the Governor of Massachusetts, John Albion Andrew, insisted that the 54th be commanded by white officers with a demonstrated commitment to the Abolitionist cause. Accordingly command of the Regiment was offered to Robert Gould Shaw, a young abolitionist from New York with strong Massachusetts ties, then serving with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry.
Salem residents who served in the 54th Massachusetts included Captain Luis F Emilo, Captain Charles Chipman, the Regimental Surgeon Major Lincoln Ripley Stone, Sergeant Francis Fletcher, Corporal James Oliver, Private William Barrett, Private William Brady, and Private William Smith.
Captain Luis Emilio was the son of Spanish immigrants who had settled in Salem in the 1840’s and were music teachers. Luis Emilio lied about his age (he was only 16) to enlist with the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry in 1861.
He was quickly promoted to Sergeant after demonstrating extreme bravery under fire, and was then offered an officers commission in the 54th by Governor Andrew himself.
Also serving with the 54th was Lewis Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass, and several residents from neighboring Lynn. Salem residents actively recruited for the 54th Massachusetts and raised funds to outfit the regiment. Most of the men of the 54th were Massachusetts residents who were free people of color. Some were born free, others were born into slavery and escaped north to start new lives in the seaboard cities of New England. Others came from Pennsylvania (where Charlotte Forten’s father was actively involved in recruiting for the 54th), others from Rochester NY (where Frederick Douglass recruited for the 54th), and others from as far away as Ontario Canada. Former slaves leapt at the opportunity to go to war against their former masters.
Like the 24th Massachusetts, the 54th trained at Readville before being deployed south. At first they were deployed to Beaufort South Carolina alongside black regiments raised from the ranks of liberated slaves. While stationed at Beaufort Robert Shaw developed a friendship with Charlotte Forten, the first black graduate of the Salem Normal School (predecessor to Salem State University) and Salem’s first black school teacher. Charlotte had gone south to teach newly liberated slaves the basics of reading and mathematics right on the front lines of the war.
For most of the regiment’s existence, the 54th Massachusetts served without pay in an act of protest. While the men originally enlisted under the understanding that they would be paid $13 a month like any white regiment, the War Department ruled that black soldiers would only be paid $10 a month. When news of the pay plan reached the men of the 54th, the soldiers refused to accept anything less than the full $13. In solidarity with their men, the officers of the 54th likewise refused payment until the soldiers of the 54th would be paid the same as any white troops. The Massachusetts legislature passed legislation authorizing the state to pay the $3 difference between the pay of white and black troops, but that compromise was also rejected by the men of the 54th. As the abolitionist Theodore Tilton wrote; “They are not willing that the Federal Government should throw mud upon them, even though Massachusetts stands ready to wipe it off.” It wasn’t until September of 1864 that black troops would receive the same payment as white troops.
Preparing for the Assault
In July of 1863 the 54th and the 24th Massachusetts were ordered to the vicinity of Charleston SC to prepare to assault the fortifications surrounding the harbor. On July 16th the 54th saw their first real action, repelling a Confederate assault at the Battle of Grimball’s Landing on James Island. Just two days later, the 54th was given the honor of leading the assault on Fort Wagner. Robert Gould Shaw himself lobbied for the 54th to lead the assault, as he thought it imperative that black troops take the lead in liberating Charleston. The world was watching, and the men of the 54th Massachusetts were aware of the attention, as revealed in their diaries and letters.
To take Fort Wagner by direct assault would require the 54th to charge over a beach for about a mile under constant fire, then through some sand dunes and trench works before reaching the earthworks of the fortification. The leading regiment would likely suffer severe casualties, but the fort had been bombarded by the US Navy for weeks, so it was expected that the Confederate garrison had been decimated and was low on ammunition, water, and food. Unknown to union forces, the sand in the earthworks of the fort had absorbed much of the impact of the naval bombardment and the men inside were well supplied and ready to counter any assault. The 54th would be supported in the assault by the 24th Massachusetts, 3rd and 7th New Hampshire, the 6th and 10th Connecticut, 48th and 100th New York, 62nd and 67th Ohio, the 9th Maine, and the 2nd South Carolina.
The 54th began their charge at 7:45 pm. When they were within 150 yards of the fort, the defenders opened fire on them with everything they had. The 54th pressed onward but the terrain and the heavy fire forced them to take cover in the dunes opposite the fort and wait until nightfall. Sergeant George Stephens of the 54th later recalled the nighttime assault.
“I remember distinctly that when our column had charged the fort, passed the half-filled moat, and mounted to the parapet, many of our men clambered over, and some entered by the large embrasure in which one of the big guns was mounted, the firing substantially ceased there by the beach, and the Rebel musketry fire steadily grew hotter on our left. An officer of our regiment called out, “Spike that gun!” . . . Just at the very hottest moment of the struggle, a battalion or regiment charged up to the moat, halted, and did not attempt to cross it and join us, but from their position commenced to fire upon us. I was one of the men who shouted from where I stood, “Don’t fire on us! We are the Fifty-fourth.” I have heard it was a Maine regiment. . . . Many of our men will join me in saying that in the early stages of the fight we had possession of the sea end of Battery Wagner. . . . When we reached the Gatling battery drawn up to repel a counter-attack, I remember you (Captain Luis Emilio) were the only commissioned officer present, and you placed us indiscriminately,—that is, without any regard to companies in line,—and proposed to renew the charge. The commanding officer, whom I do not know, ordered us to the flanking rifle-pits, and we then awaited the expected counter-charge the enemy did not make.”
Samuel Mason, a correspondent with the New York Herald, wrote of the assault
“I saw them fight at Wagner as none but splendid soldiers, splendidly officered, could fight, dashing through shot and shell, grape, canister, and shrapnel, and showers of bullets, and when they got close enough, fighting with clubbed muskets, and retreating when they did retreat, by command and with choice white troops for company.”
Colonel Shaw was killed on the parapet, shot through the chest. Major Hallowell was shot through the groin. Thus Captain Luis Emilio, from Salem Massachusetts, became the senior officer present at the age of just 21. He kept up the assault and then, when it proved hopeless, led an orderly retreat. Sergeant James Carney, born a slave in Virginia who had escaped to New Bedford, Massachusetts via the underground railroad, became the first black man awarded the Medal of Honor for risking his life to retrieve the American Flag from the Confederate forces that had captured it.
He would later work as a letter carrier and became a founding member of the National Association of Letter Carriers union.
After the Assault
The next day the Confederates unceremoniously dumped the bodies of the fallen into a mass grave at the base of the fort. Colonel Shaw’s body was recognized by the commander of the Confederate Forces, General Hagood, who wrote “Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial; as it is, I shall bury him in the common trench with the n_____s that fell with him.”
The Union had suffered over 1,500 casualties, the brunt born by the 54th Massachusetts. Fort Wagner would remain in Confederate hands until September when they abandoned the position after a protracted siege (in which soldiers from Salem serving in the 24th Massachusetts, the 54th Massachusetts, and the 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery also saw action). Charleston would not fall until February of 1865.
The wounded were sent to Hilton Head and Beauport SC, where Charlotte Forten would volunteer as a nurse after teaching her class.
Upon hearing of the death of her friend Colonel Shaw and of the decimation of the 54th Massachusetts she wrote in her diary: “It is too terrible, too terrible to write. We only hope that it may not all be true. That our noble, beautiful young Colonel is killed and the regiment cut to pieces! I cannot believe it. But oh, I am stunned, sick at heart. I can scarcely write…And oh I still must hope that our colonel, ours especially he seems to me, is not killed.” She was later informed by Major Hallowell that Colonel Shaw had left her his horse.
In the back of the Old Burying Point in Essex Massachusetts, there is a grave to Pvt Charles P. Reed of the 24th Massachusetts who died on August 1st 1863 at Hilton Head SC from wounds received during the assault on Fort Wagner. Someone loved him enough to find and bring his body home.
Luis Emilio would later write an incredible account of the 54th Massachusetts titled “The Brave Black Regiment”. It is a must read for anyone interested in the history of civil rights, the civil war, black history, or Salem history.
The poem below, “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground”, is from a popular song sung by black soldiers and abolitionists. The lyrics were inspired by the heroism of Sergeant William Carney at Fort Wagner.
One night on Southern battlefields,
down where Fort Wagner lay,
A regiment of black men fought,
The Blue against the Gray.
As the sun sank slowly in the West
A thunderstorm and gale
Wept tears to see the brave black troops
Shot down by leaden hail.
A negro saw the old flag fall
And threw his gun away
To grasp the falling colors staff
And lead them to the fray.
Twas the Blue against the Gray, Boys,
And he said to all around
“I’ve only done my duty boys,
The old Flag never touch’d the ground.”