Fort Wagner was an important part of the defences of Charleston, South Carolina, built after the start of the American Civil War. It commanded one approach into Charleston Harbour, as well as providing protection for Fort Sumner. If it fell into Union hands, then it would provide a perfect base for the bombardment of that fort, and dramatically weaken the Confederate grip on South Carolina.
Unfortunately for any attacker, Fort Wagner was well situated on the northern tip of Morris Island, protected by the sea to the east and a swamp to the west. The only possible line of attack was from the south, straight into the teeth of the Confederate guns. At the start of July the fort had a garrison of 1,352 men, commanded by Brigadier-General William Taliaferro.
July 1863 saw a determined Union attack on Charleston. New army and navy commanders, determined to make their mark, decided to start with the capture of Fort Wagner. At the start of July they landed at the south end of Morris Island, and prepared for an assault.
The first attack went in on 11 July. One brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General George C. Strong, launched an attack that reached the parapet of the fort before being forced back with heavy losses (339 Union losses compared to only 12 Confederate). If the attack had been abandoned at this point then it would almost forgotten. However, a second attack was ordered, and it was this attack that made a longer term impact.
The reason for that impact was the selection of the 54th Massachusetts regiment to lead the attack. This regiment was the North’s crack black unit, but it had not yet been involved in a major battle. The attack on Fort Wagner would be its first real test.
In the gap between assaults, the Confederate garrison was reinforced until it was 1,785 strong. The Union attack would be made by two brigades – Strong’s and Haldimand S. Putnam’s. The 54th Massachusetts, under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, joined Strong’s brigade after the first attack.
The attack on 18 July was no more successful than that on the eleventh. Despite a preliminary bombardment by twenty-six guns and ten siege mortars, the Confederate defences held. The 54th managed to reach the parapet of the fort, even maintaining their position for an hour before being pushed back with 25% casualties, the same ratio suffered by the entire attacking force. The Union attackers lost 1,515 men (246 dead, 880 wounded and 389 missing) out of a total of 5,264, compared to a confederate total of only 174 (36 dead, 133 wounded and 5 missing). Colonel Shaw was amongst the Union dead.
His regiment had amply proved its worth. Their attack on Fort Wagner was compared to Bunker Hill by one northern newspaper, and provided President Lincoln with the perfect background for the defence of the Emancipation Proclamation, still under attack ten months after it had been issued. Lincoln was able to argue that every black man in the U.S. Army who had been freed from slavery reduced the Confederate strength by just as much as it increased the North’s strength, although this argument did not really apply to the 54th Massachusetts, as that regiment had been raised entirely in the north.