- Historic Sites
“Tonight For Freedom”
At Fort Wagner the Negro soldier was asked to prove the worth of the “powerful black hand”
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
But speechmaking was not yet over. Colonel Shaw, the regimental commander, stepped forward. He had been until recently a captain in the and Massachusetts and had fought at Winchester and Antietam. The commission for his new command had been carried to him like a votive offering by his lather from Boston to Virginia. Ordinarily Shaw’s manner was uncommonly impressive, but in the dusk before the battle, survivors said later, the man shone with “angelic light.” And even if this was merely the normal glorification of the heroic dead, all sources are agreed that Robert Gould Shaw was an exceptional human being. Between him and his men flowed a strong tide ot leeling. He gave them his patrician-bred understanding and sympathy; they gave him gratitude and their implicit faith. He was for them a symbol of what men could be—of what perhaps this war was !ought to prove they themselves could become once it was over. He was a talisman. As if to prove it, the skies, lowering and threatening since the storm, cleared and a few stars winked as Shaw stepped forth. A quite spontaneous cheer went up.
It took him only a minute to make his speech. He told them that much depended on this night’s work. He reminded them that an act of the Confederate Congress made the Union’s Negro soldiers outlaws, denied them the protection of the captured, and that as prisoners they might be sold into slavery, summarily shot, or hanged. The military design of the assault, he said, was to In’each the defenses of Charleston. But was this all, or even the main? Not by any means. Lifting his drawn sword, the Colonel pointed to the emblematic pennon of white silk, which bore the figure of Liberty. The simple command “Forward!” rang out, and the mass took stride on the shelterless narrow flat.
Before they had gone forty paces, being now within musket range, the bastion front lit up from end to end with a sheet of running flame. It was a terrific shock, for the men half believed and half hoped that the bombardment had silenced the Rebel guns.
With that first blast, this was proved a delusion. Men dropped like ripened fruit in a windstorm. But in that instant glow of sulphurous light before the smoke and dust rolled out, Colonel Shaw saw his first objective—a place forward where the gourd-shaped island flared out before it narrowed to a neck of land on the tip of which blazed Wagner. Urging his men to it, Shaw loosened his ranks and charged them into th;it murderous hail of canister, era ne, and musket ball.
The ramparts of Wagner crackled and roared, spurting the blue flames of small arms and the reddishyellow blasts of cannon. And as if this were not enough, a storm of solid shot thundered in from the left. The Confederate batteries on Sullivan’s Island had opened up, sweeping the flat with a broom of fire. Men fell in swaths: others pushed ahead.
Indeed, there was nothing else to do and no place to go but ahead. For now the Rebel guns at Cumming’s Point and Sumter were lobbing shells onto the sandspit, plowing up the ground in the rear ol the 54th and pinning down, at least temporarily, the supporting regiments. Somewhere off on the seaward flank, but apparently in the path of fire, General Strong realized what the situation was and ordered a double-quick charge. He did not live to see it executed; nor could it have been executed. All the 54th could do was creep into a musketry fire that was as solid as a wall of steel. The rest of the ist Brigade, consisting of five regiments, staggered in behind.
Almost every step produced confusion. No one knew the terrain in the dark. The regiments backing up the 54th got scrambled like eggs. Colonel Barton of the New Yorkers found himself in the midst of troops from Maine. His own men had gone on ahead, where they briefly occupied some rifle pits hastily dug for the assault ol seven days before. When he did find his men they were coming back with their wounded. Meantime a company ol Connecticut men had got bogged down in the marshes of Vincent’s Creek off to the left and, caught in the heaviest fire from Sullivan’s Island, were churned to bloody mincemeat in the mud. The and Brigade came in under Colonel Putnam, who kept shouting, “Forward! Forward!” and, losing his men, himself advanced so swiftly as to overtake the rear of the 54th. The hailstorm did not slacken. The din was “like a million locomotives straining on a grade.” There were now eight thousand men caught on a spit of land 300 yards at its widest. Two thousand more were to come. But none of them, except those who died, stayed i’or long.
It seems impossible that no one on the Union side knew about the ditch. Eight days before, on July 10, the Union landing on Morris Island had been effected, and that same day an attack was pushed within 600 yards of the fort, but the position was untenable. On July i i General Gillmore’s dispatch to General Halleek noted: “VVe now hold all the Island except about one mile on the north end, which includes Fort Wagner, and a battery at Cumming’s Point. …” On the twelfth a parallel was commenced for the emplacement of siege guns a thousand yards from Wagner, and other measures were taken preliminary to the assault, timed for six days later. Since it is impossible to conceive that among these measures there was none for scouting and reconnoitering the terrain, it must be supposed that in the furious, milling confusion of the infantry attack the ditch was forgotten.