54th Massachusetts Regiment charging towards Fort Wagner, lithograph by Kurz and Allison, 1890
The 54th Massachusetts, an infantry regiment composed of African-American soldiers led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, led the second Union attack on Fort Wagner at dusk (around 7:45 p.m.) on July 18, 1863. Before the attack, Union artillery had bombarded the fort, supplemented by naval gunfire from six monitors that pulled to within 300 yards of the fort. The bombardment lasted eight hours, but caused little damage against the sandy walls of the fort, and in all, killed only about 8 men and wounded an additional 20, as the defenders had taken cover in the bombproof shelter. Once the bombardment halted, the Confederate soldiers emerged from their bunkers to resume their positions. When the 54th Massachusetts reached about 150 yards from the fort, the defenders opened up with cannon and small arms, tearing through their ranks. The 51st North Carolina delivered a direct fire into them, as the Charleston Battalion fired into their left. The 54th managed to reach the parapet, but after a fierce struggle, including hand-to-hand combat, they were forced back. By 10 p.m. the bloody struggle had concluded with heavy losses. The 54th Massachusetts’s colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, was killed upon the parapet early in the action. Some Confederate reports claim his body was pierced seven times, with the fatal wound a rifle bullet to his chest.
Afterwards, the men of the 54th Massachusetts were hailed for their valor. William Carney, an African-American sergeant with the 54th, is considered the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions that day in recovering and returning the unit’s U.S. Flag to Union lines. Their conduct improved the reputation of African Americans as soldiers, leading to greater Union recruitment of African-Americans, which strengthened the Northern states’ numerical advantage. In addition, the South recognized for the first time that captured African American soldiers were to be treated as enemy combatants and not criminals In all, about 1,515 Union soldiers were killed, captured, or wounded. Confederate casualties numbered 174.
The rest of the story:
About a dozen African American troops from Ypsilanti, Michigan joined the legendary 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry regiments during the Civil War. According to the following chart, several were either wounded or died in the assault at Fort Wagner. One may have subsequently died in captivity at Andersonville.
We remember the Michigan men who fell that day; Alfred Harris, 28, Detroit; Joseph Proctor, 25, Detroit; John Stevens, 23, Pontiac; William Harrison, 22, Battle Creek; John Leatherman, 24, Ypsilanti; Charles Augustus, 23 Ypsilanti. In addition to those who died, Michigan men Louis Kelsky, Jordan Rouse, Elias Rouse, Benjamin Thompson, James Coleman, John Coleman, George Broady, James Munroe, William Fowler, Samuel Tipton, Henry Tucker, Jesse Lawson, Robert Nelson, William Scott, and Uriah Wilson were wounded.
South Adams Street circa 1900 Facebook page , July 17, 2020.
South Adams Street circa 1900 Facebook page, February 22, 2018.
(Note: The vast majority of Ypsilanti’s African American troops joined the 1st Colored Michigan Regiment / 102nd U.S. Colored Troops.)