Who: Robert Gould Shaw and Quincy Gillmore (Union) vs P.G.T Beauregard and William B. Taliaferro (Confederacy)
What: Confederate victory
Where: Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina
Why: Fort Wagner was crucial to the naval defense of Charleston; the battle heralded the acceptance of African-American soldiers in the war
When: July 18, 1863
“The old flag never touched the ground” – Sgt. William Carney
In 1863 Brigadier General was given the task of capturing Charleston. His task required the capture of Charleston’s heavily defended harbor. Fort Wagner, on Morris Island, a hastily built earthwork reinforced with springy palmetto logs, stood in his way. The approach to Fort Wagner was only 60 yards (55m) wide, with an impassable swamp on one side and the Atlantic on the other, meaning only one regiment could attack at a time. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry were chosen, one of the first African-American units of the US Army, commanded by the white 25-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The 54th and their two supporting brigades charged, and were shredded by withering Confederate cannon and musket fire. They reached the parapet and engaged in bloody hand to hand fighting, but the attack was repulsed with heavy losses, including Shaw, shot in the chest three times urging his men forward. Around 1,500 Union soldiers were killed, captured or wounded, with Shaw buried in a mass grave with his black men intended as an insult (but not interpreted as such by his abolitionist parents). Despite the loss, the battle changed the way the North saw African-Americans. The 54th had lost half of its 600 men, and were widely praised for their courage under fire, with one, Sgt. William Carney, awarded the Medal of Honor. This led to wider African-American recruitment, further bolstering the North’s numerical advantage and improving the reputation of black soldiers.