“Tonight For Freedom”


In the spring of 1863 the Union government tried hard to break into the strongly defended harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. In April navy ironclads attached the Confederate defenses and were repulsed; joint army-navy operations were then planned, and in July the army seized the lower end of Morris Island, a long, low stretch of tlie coast on the southern side of the entrance to the harbor. It was believed that if all of the island could be taken, siege guns could be mounted so as to destroy Fort Sumter and other harbor defenses and clear the way for Union warships.

The chief Confederate stronghold on Morris Island was Battery Wagner, an earthwork near the northern tip, some 2,600 yards south of Fort Sumter. The earthwork ran clear across the sandspit which forms the northern portion of Morris Island, and attacking troops had to approach head-on along a narrow neck, of sand. A preliminary attack failed, and a larger one was arranged for the night of July 18. Leading it was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a Negro regiment with white officers, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. This battle would draw nation-wide attention because Negro troops had seen little action and many doubted the Negro’s capacity as a soldier.

Everything was quiet except the sea, and that—ebbing as the purple dusk congealed to darkness—sucked back through the marshes and hissed along the narrow strip of beach with the sound of ravening mouths. The air was acrid, partly from the odor of the marsh, partly from the brine of the sea, but mostly from the sting of burned gunpowder. Though the bombardment of 41 guns, aided by the cannon of six ironclads riding a stone’s throw offshore, had ceased three hours ago, no breeze had risen to dispel the hot scent of the cannonade. It had lasted eleven hours, but Fort Wagner remained—slope-sided, parapeted and silent, as impregnable as ever, it seemed, in the thickening twilight. It would have to be stormed.

Shortly before seven o’clock a fog-laden brcexe drifted in from the sea, and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment tried to relax. It was impossible. They were raw troops, having had only a sharp skirmish on James Island two days earlier to learn from. For two years, while the battles of the Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville were fought and lost, certain leaders and champions of freedom had urged, pressed, harangued President Lincoln to recruit black men for war. “With every reverse to the national arms, with every exultant shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperilled nation to unchain against her foes lier powerful black hand,” cried Frederick Douglass. Charles Sumner and Samuel Pomeroy echoed him in the Senate, and Horace Greeley in the press. Carl Schurz, minister to Spain, came across the ocean: “Afr. President, all Europe is looking. …” And now at last that black hand was unchained, a thousand pairs of black hands. Mut they could not relax.

In this battle, and in what was left of the war, they would have much to contradict and more to affirm. They would have to contradict all those charges made against them: that they would not fight, for “at a crack of Old Master’s whip” they would Hee the field in abject terror; that even were they endowed with courage they were too ignorant to learn the arts of combat; that this was, after all, “the white man’s country and the white man’s war”—charges that Lincoln himself seemed to believe sufficiently to keep black men from battle. Now by their conduct in this engagement they would have to prove that they possessed all those qualities—confidence, resolution, and valor—summed up in the word “manhood.” They would have to affirm their faith that the ultimate mission of this war was not only to save the Union but to free the slaves. They would have to vindicate their belief that “liberty won only by white men would lose half its lustre.”

Gathered squatting and sitting in little knots to themselves, some distance from the seasoned white troops that had occupied the southern end of Morris Island for several days and that were also to be committed to this battle, the men of the 54th were not aware of the approach of their brigade commander. But suddenly a low-pitched voice called out, “Men! Men of the 54th!” They scrambled up quickly, tensely, snatching rifles and fixing bayonets, and pressed together just as Brigadier General George C. Strong, flanked by aides and orderlies, rode up. The General clapped his hands, making a sound like a pistol shot, but his voice was quiet when he spoke.

“Men of the 54th—free men. We will attack.” He paused dramatically, and for a moment there was a silence as palpable as a knife thrust. His gaze swept the disordered press of men. “You will lead it,” the General said. Then a cheer rose uncertainly, gathered strength, but never really swelled to the lull, and years later a man of the regiment was to say that they were choked up with emotion.

With the barest gesture of salute, General Strong cantered away.