Thursday, July 18, 2013

Second Attack on Fort Wagner

The Federals, not convinced by the failure of their attack a few days before, again attacked Fort Wagner, outside of Charleston, South Carolina 150 years ago today. The regiment chosen to spearhead the attack was the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment of United States Colored Troops commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw. They would be supported by two additional brigades. The ground over which they had to pass was narrow, and halfway to the fort became flat, giving a good field of fire.

Colonel Robert Shaw
To soften up the fort for capture, Union guns fired on them from land and sea throughout the day. The infantry stepped out about sunset and the guns fell silent. As the Confederates sighted them they opened a rapid fire with their artillery, and as the Federals rushed forward, closing the range, a heavy musketry fire was poured into them from the parapet. The 54th Massachusetts hesitated under the terrific fire, but Colonel Shaw shouted, "Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!"and led them towards the fort.

As the troops from the 54th fell back, they encountered the next regiments and disorientated their ranks. The next two brigades pressed forward, but they were confused in the darkness and most fled to the rear before they reached the parapet. A surviving officer of the 54th Massachusetts wrote in his report:
In this formation ... as the dusk of the evening came on, the regiment advanced at quick time, leading the column the enemy opened upon us a brisk fire; our pace now gradually increased till it became a run. Soon canister and musketry began to tell upon us. With Colonel Shaw leading, the assault was commenced. Exposed to the direct fire of canister and musketry, and, as the ramparts were mounted, to a like fire on our flanks, the havoc made in our ranks was very great. Upon leaving the ditch for the parapet, they obstinately contested with the bayonet our advance. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the men succeeded in driving the enemy from most of their guns, many following the enemy into the fort. It was here, upon the crest of the parapet, that Colonel Shaw fell; … here also were most of the officers wounded. The colors of the regiment reached the crest, and were there fought for by the enemy; the State flag then torn from its staff, but the staff remains with us. Hand-grenades were now added to the missiles directed against the men. The fight raged here for about an hour.
Although the colored troops demonstrated their valor, they were unable to break into the fort. Colonel Shaw fell, hit with seven Confederate bullets. Sargent William Carney of the 54th was awarded the Medal of Honor for planting the Union flag on the parapet of the fort and then carrying it back to Union lines. When he made it back from the assault, he reported to the other men, "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!" He was the first black recipient of the medal of honor. The good fight of the 54th improved the Union soldiers's views of the fighting qualities of their black comrades.

On one portion of the line the 6th Connecticut attack gained some success. The 31st North Carolina, which had been captured as a unit earlier in the war, fled from the parapet, and the Federals were able to climb up, set foot on the rampart, and seize control of a portion of the line. The Confederate tried to counterattack, but twice their charges were beaten back. But the Federals were receiving no reinforcements, and a fresh Confederate regiment, the 32nd Georgia, rushed forward and was able to secure the lines. The fight was over by 10 pm. Many of the high ranking Union commanders had fallen, along with more than 1,500 of their men. The Confederates lost 174. After this costly defeat, the Federals turned to a traditional siege of the fort.


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