“Tonight For Freedom”


There it was, several feet wide and filled with four feet of water. The glacis of the fort sloped down to it, and the glacis was Colonel Shaw’s next objective. Only the musketry and grenades of the enemy could reach here. But the going was tough. The sandy slope was pitted from the bombardment, and it was dark, and darkness was the doom of this attack. With Shaw at its crest, the first wave of the 54th plunged headlong into the unseen ditch. A few men panicked and drowned, but most scrambled out, shouted warnings to those who followed, and started up the glacis. Musket fire hissed into them. Grenades screamed down. Beyond the ditch, and halted by it in utmost confusion, a company of Maine men began firing on the slope, and Captain Luis Emilio, bringing up the rear of the Negro columns, shouted out, “Don’t fire on us! We’re the 54thl” But his shouts were ineffective. He ordered a retreat, and some of his men slid down the scarp and waded back across the ditch.

Meanwhile the brave, or reckless, Colonel Shaw and about ninety men, Sergeants Lewis Douglass and John Wall among them, had clawed their way to the top. A sudden blaze of calcium light revealed them mounted on the parapet. For a shocked moment the Confederates who saw them there stopped firing, as if in awe or in tribute to such daring. How could they have come up the glacis slope through that savage storm? Yet there they were, plainly to be seen in the blaze of light, their colonel waving his sword, and next to him the color sergeant, John Wall, carrying the flag. Both were hit at the instant Lewis Douglass’ sword sheath was blown off him and he, uninjured, was blasted back down the scarp. Wall staggered and dropped the flag, but the wounded Sergeant Carney caught it and slid away. Colonel Shaw, however, toppled inside the fort, and some eighty of his “reckless and insane men,” said the Confederate General Taliaferro’s report, “who seemed to insist upon immolation,” jumped in after him. There they fought hand to hand around Shaw’s lifeless body until every man of them was killed.

The assault on Fort Wagner was totally repulsed and over in an hour, but the Union forces did not retire completely. Captain Emilio gathered what was left of the 1st Brigade, dug in on a line 700 yards from the fort, and kept up a desultory and useless fire through half the night. Scattered elements of the and Brigade fronted the enemy at other points. Until two o’clock in the morning they waited for the order to renew the attack, but it never came. The sand had drunk its fill of blood.

In the morning, “as the sun rose and revealed our terrible losses, what a rich harvest Death had gathered during the short strugglel” Fifteen hundred men had fallen, dead and wounded. Two hundred and fortyseven of these were officers and men of the first Negro regiment recruited in the free states. When a request was made for the body of Colonel Shaw, a Rebel officer is alleged to have sent back the scornful reply, “We have buried him with his niggers.”

This contempt for the “niggers” had once had other uses than simple hostility. It had been organic to the social structure of the slave system and had stood at the center of its elaborate ritual. It had fixed the idea of the white man’s immutable superiority, and it had been the element of steel in a towering emotional edifice. If contempt for the Negro had made it sound reasonable beyond argument for southerners to declare, “Nigras, sir, are brute beasts,” it had also given meaning—had, indeed, been the meaning—to the northerners’ ditty:

To the flag we are pledged, all its foes we abhor, And we ain’t for the nigger, but we are for the war.

But though the contempt would survive, its uses had been blasted into nullities by the shot and shell at Wagner. No amount of contempt thereafter could completely hide the truth that clear-eyed men north and south now dimly perceived on the horizon of the future. For Wagner was more than just another battle: it was a turning point—not in the war itself, but in the basis upon which the war was fought. Men’s minds now could never again comfortably harbor their old habits of thought, nor their hearts the same certainty of social virtue, nor their spirits the same equable emotional weather. Wagner was a moment in history after which the national destiny would change, and to meet this change institutions would be modified and reared in doubt and hope, with curses and prayers. At Wagner Negroes had won the first right of men—the right to die for freedom.