Fort Wagner: Morris Island, South Carolina

54th Massachusetts Infantry - Storming Fort Wagner

During the American Civil War, there were two Union attacks on a Confederate fort in South Carolina. Both resulted in Union defeat, however, the second attack made by a colored regiment proved these colored soldiers brave and capable of fighting in the war alongside white men. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first all-black volunteer Union regiments, made a second Assault on Fort Wagner that took place July 18, 1863. Although it was a disastrous and costly Union defeat, it was the fourth time in the Civil War that black troops played a crucial role. This second Union attack on Fort Wagner encouraged other black men to enlist in the war and fight for their freedom.

Led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, these men fought valiantly in effort to capture Fort Wagner. Fort Wagner was located on the south bay of Morris Island in South Carolina, and it wasn’t an ideal location for an attack. A high earth and walls of sand protected Confederate artillery, making it difficult to get to. Before going into battle, Shaw had told his soldiers that he knew they would “prove themselves as men”. It was disastrous; there were 246 Union casualties, compared to 36 Confederate casualties, as well as many Union soldiers left wounded, missing, or captured. While storming the fort, Shaw himself was shot and killed. As a way to dishonor Shaw, Confederate officers buried him at the bottom of a pit with his colored troops who had also died in action. Some of the officers had said, “We have buried him with his n*****s”. Shaw’s family decided to leave his body with his men, and instead of appearing dishonored, Shaw became honored among those in the North.

The Assault on Fort Wagner offered the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry the chance to prove that they could fight just as well as any white man and that they were willing to die for their freedom. After this battle in South Carolina, Northern newspapers praised Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. They recognized the courageous efforts of colored troops in their fight for their freedom, concluding that they could fight just as bravely as white men. Black enlistments skyrocketed after this battle. By the end of 1863, there were thirty all-black regiments for the Union. Fighting for their freedom allowed these men to feel as though they were true American citizens.


Works Consulted:

“Battle of Fort Wagner Facts & Summary”. American Battlefield Trust, 17 July 2020,

Robbins, Peggy. “The 54th Massachusetts’ War within a War”. Military History, 2003, p. 62-70. ProQuest,


Latitude: 32.727101400000
Longitude: -79.876049700000

Timeline of Events Associated with Fort Wagner: Morris Island, South Carolina

Date Event Manage
Jan 1863 to Dec 1863

Recruitment of Colored Troops in the American Civil War

At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, black men were not recruited for the Union army. But two years later, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln allowed recruitment of African Americans to fight for the Union.

As an abolitionist, Massachusetts’ governor, John A. Andrew, pushed for funding and black men to join the war effort. Andrew had wanted a black regiment to fight for Massachusetts since the beginning of the war, but it wasn’t until the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation that he was able to begin recruitment for all-black regiments in Massachusetts. Andrew worked with abolitionists, both black and white, to encourage formation of an all-black regiment. Most black men were hesitant to join the United States Colored Troops (USCT), as word had gotten around that treatment of any black soldiers captured by the Confederates would be worse than treatment of a white Union prisoner. White Union officers who commanded these black soldiers would be executed if captured as well. Despite this, recruitment for a 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, all-black regiments, began just a month after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Governor Andrew was able to enlist 1,000 men and raise money for the regiment he hoped would stand as an example for future colored regiments. Because of the worries of black men joining the Union to fight, recruitment had to be done outside of Massachusetts as well. But by May, the 54th infantry was full.

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, is best known for the Assault on Fort Wagner. Although the 54th Massachusetts Infantry lost the battle, these soldiers showed that black men were capable of fighting for their freedom just as white men were. After their valiant efforts at the battle of Fort Wagner in July of 1863, black enlistments climbed to reach a new high. General Ulysses S. Grant wrote of the black soldiers in a letter to President Lincoln that arming Negroes was a big blow to the Confederates, saying that “these Negroes were the Union’s strong ally”.

Works Consulted:

Brown, Katie O’Halloran. “Letters of Black Soldiers from Ohio Who Served in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries during the Civil War”. Ohio Valley History, vol. 16, no. 3, 2016, p. 72-79. Project MUSE.

Robbins, Peggy. “The 54th Massachusetts’ War within a War”. Military History, 2003, p. 62-70. ProQuest,