The Assault on Fort Wagner, 18 July 1863
The Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Volunteer Infantry was raised shortly after Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863. Recruits, mostly free men, came from many states, encouraged by African American leaders such as the great orator Frederick Douglass, whose own sons joined the Fifty-fourth. The unit was led by twenty-five-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, the Harvard-educated son of dedicated white abolitionists. As an officer in the Second Massachusetts Infantry, Shaw had already experienced combat and been twice wounded.
The Fifty-fourth Regiment had its first test of battle on 16 July 1863, at James Island, South Carolina, and two days later led the assault upon Fort Wagner, which stood on Morris Island guarding access to the port of Charleston. Although Union artillery had bombarded the fortress all day long, the Confederates were virtually unharmed, and they mowed down the advancing Union forces. Shaw led the charge and was one of the first to die, killed by a bullet as he approached the top of the parapet. Of the approximately six hundred men of the Fifty-fourth who participated, nearly three hundred were captured, declared missing, or died from wounds they received that day. Their steadfastness and bravery in the face of slaughterous fire were widely reported, providing a rallying point for African Americans who had longed for the chance to fight for Emancipation. By the end of the war, African Americans constituted ten percent of the Union forces, contributing crucial manpower to the final victory of the North.