The 54th Massachusetts: The Doomed Assault On Fort Wagner
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The Assault on Fort Wagner has long been the subject of many discussions on the Civil War and is featured prominently in all books that have been written about the Civil War. The Assault on Fort Wagner has even been immortalized in the onscreen adaptation entitled Glory. While there has been a lot of discussion with regard to the success of the 54th Massachusetts, which figured prominently in the Assault on Fort Wagner, the fact is that the assault was doomed from the beginning and that the Assault on Fort Wagner was unsuccessful (Duncan 1999). This short discourse will discuss why such an attack was unsuccessful and thus showing why the Assault by the 54th Massachusetts was doomed from the start. To better understand why the assault of the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner was doomed it is important to have a brief discussion of the some of the events that transpired on that fateful day, July 18, 1863.
It was July 18, 1863 when General Quincy Gilmore decided to begin the assault against Fort Wagner on Morris Island (Duncan 1999). This was a crucial location because it guarded the Southern approaches to Charleston Harbor. The Fort was difficult to attack directly because it was held by a garrison of Confederate Infantry and Artillery and the Fort itself was protected by a narrow approach up the beach. To make matters worse, the pass was constricted by a marshy creek which funneled the soldiers onto a strip of sand a few hundred feet wide making them vulnerable to enemy fire.
The Assault on Fort Wagner was led by the 54th Massachusetts, which was an experimental black regiment of free men from the North. This regiment was selected to storm the front with the bayonets and rifles (Duncan 1999). The 54th was suffered massive losses because of their failure in destroying the sandbagged gun emplacements of the Fort. The assault led by the 54th Massachusetts was also made more difficult by the fact that they were under heavy fire from the heavy artillery and the massed musketry.
Soon after, the first S.C. Artillery positioned itself on the right flank of the fort, in the sand dunes, in order to be able to sweep the front wall of the Fort with Cannister. The lengthy hand to hand fighting that ensued was fierce after which the Federal troops were ordered to withdraw because of the heavy losses that they suffered. The withdrawal of the Federal Troops left Fort Wagner in the hands of the Confederates (Wise 1994).
At this point it becomes clear that the Assault on Fort Wagner was ill conceived and poorly planned as manifested, not only by the huge losses that were suffered but also by subsequent withdrawal of the Federal Troops (Wise 1994). There are two main reasons why the assault of the 54th Massachusetts failed. There was a failure to appreciate the fact that Fort Wagner was strategically located and thereby allowing a relatively small force in comparison to defend it against the infantry and there was the failure to provide more support for the doomed 54th Massachusetts (Wise 1994).
The first reason was that Fort Wagner was a fully enclosed and well defended fort. It spanned 250 by 100 yards and covered the entire southern neck of Cumming’s Point from the Atlantic on the Eastern side to an impassable swamp on the Western side (Emilio 1894). The fort was an imposing figure as its sloping sand and earthen parapets rose about thirty (30) feet above the beach level and each side was bolstered by palmetto logs and sandbags. The defenses of Fort Wagner included fourteen (14) cannons, the largest of which was a 10-inch Columbiad that fired a 128-pound shell (Emilio 1894). The main feature that made any land assault on the fort difficult was the fact that the fort’s land face, which was the only place where any Union assault would come from, was screened by a water-filled ditch, which was 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep. There were also land mines that were buried along the approach and the razor-sharp palmetto stakes that were set up provided additional obstacles. This made any infantry assault on the Fort doomed from the start (Emilio 1894). This was the bloody lesson that General Gilmore learned as it took nearly two months of continuous fighting and constant bombardment before Fort Wagner was finally surrendered by the Confederates. Any direct assault on the Fort, such as the one initiated by the 54th Massachusetts, would be largely ineffectual against such a well defended location that also had the geographical advantage (Emilio 1894).
The second reason for the failure of the assault of the 54th Massachusetts was the fact that they were the front line against a foe that was not yet weakened (Cox 1891). While there was artillery support from the SS New Ironsides, which was a virtually a floating gun platform encased in iron, the narrow approach to the fort made any direct assault upon it virtually doomed. The 54th was the vanguard of the Union attack force and as such was expected to suffer the most casualties. The artillery shelling that had commenced earlier had made any advancement by the 54th extremely difficult as the moat was now filled with sand, while elsewhere the water was knee- to-waist-deep (Cox 1891). The 54th was therefore up against all odds and the only reason why the entire regiment was not decimated is a testament to the character and strength of those brave soldiers.
The assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts was doomed from the start. As the vanguard for the Union, this regiment was expected to absorb the brunt of the defenders attacks. They were commissioned and positioned to suffer most of the losses. The artillery shelling that was meant to lend support was ineffectual at that point in the assault and only served to make things more difficult of the 54th. The fort was also too well defended and had the strategic advantage of higher ground and having only a single narrow approach that could easily be defended against any direct attack which was shown by the failure of the 54th Massachusetts.
Cox, Clinton (1891). Undying Glory: The story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1891
Duncan, Russell (1999). Where Death and Glory Meet : Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Emilio, Luis F. (1894), A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the 54th Massachusetts, 1863-1865, Da Capo Press, 1894.
Wise, Stephen R. (1994), “Gate of Hell, Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863”, U.S.C. Press, 1994.