“Tonight For Freedom”

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The emotion that choked up the cheers of the 54th may have been gratitude, it may have been pride, it may have been fear. It may have been all these and more, so many feelings so compacted that they could not be defined. The heart too often ravaged cannot defend itself. “I remember how it was,” wrote a young man of the regiment to his father, and in the moment of knowing how it was he had wondered how many black men would have to purchase dignity with death. True, he could remember the day the 54th marched through Boston, and the cheers of the 20,000 who turned out to watch the Negro soldiers on their way to Battery Wharf, where they embarked for South Carolina on the steamer De Malay. But he also remembered the mocks and taunts, the gibes of certain northern Negroes grown cynical and bitter; and the jeers of white men, not all of them hooligans, set to the cadence of a march:

In battle’s wild commotion I won’t at all object If a nigger should stop a bullet Coming for me direct. A nigger’s just an ape-thing, A thing of no respect. If lie should stop a Minié ball I shan’t at all object.

Lewis Douglass—the younger son of the Negro abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who with his brother Charles had been the first in the state of New York to enlist—remembered. But also he remembered his father’s answer to those jeers. “Better even die than to live slaves. … The day dawns; the morning star is bright upon the horizon! … The iron gate of our prison stands hall open. One gallant rush … will fling it wide, and tour millions of our brothers and sisters will march out to liberty.”

Now, as the troops formed and moved forward over the hard-packed sand of the narrow causeway, no one felt good, and especially none of the men of the 54th. They had arrived on Morris Island only a couple of hours before sundown. They had had neither rest nor refreshment for two days. Moreover, a sudden severe thunderstorm had drenched them, and as they moved to the van their steaming uniforms weighed heavy as lead. There were six regiments (all but the 54th Massachusetts were white) in the ist Brigade, commanded by General Strong; but since the plan was to commit them a regiment at a time, the 54th was ordered up on the double so as to widen the distance between it and the supporting 6th Connecticut.

There was an air of suspense as they advanced the depth of a regiment. From the fort, less than 400 yards ahead, no gun spoke and no light shone. Had Wagner been knocked out by the bombardment and evacuated? Soon they were almost within musket range, an excellent massed target against the fading sky and the tawny beach. Still nothing from the fort. Perhaps the rumor that went whispering sibilantly through the ranks was true. Perhaps in that hour of blackening rain and thunder the Confederates had scampered down the hidden sea lace of the fort and escaped in small boats to Sumter.

But, indeed, the opposite had happened. Wagner had been heavily reinforced.

All at once the cry “Heads up!” rang out from the rear, and the column of moving men on the left pressed inward against their companions as a horseman went tearing by. There was no room for dispersion on the road between the sea and the marsh. Two more mounted men galloped past. The first was General Strong. He was easily recogni/ed by his whitegauntleted hands, with which he held the reins high and loose. It was not certain who the others were, but word came back that one was General Quincy Gillmore himself, commander of the entire Federal assaidt against Charleston. A moment or two more and the troops were ordered to halt. They did not have long to wait. General Strong’s voice spoke out. The forward men could hear well enough, but the breeze, blowing stiffly now, whipped the voice before it reached the rear, and the men there caught only tatters of it.

“Free men … 54th …” The General first expressed his regret for sending them into battle without food or rest, but ”… hour has struck. Men … tonight for freedom …” It was the kind of prebattle address fashionable since the days of the Caesars. It was the siren voice of glory “luring them to the bloody and inhospitable trenches” of Wagner. A little more ol this and then the three horsemen, General Strong the last, rode back down the line, but slowly, fixing the troops with steady gaze, and all three holding salute.