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Fort Wagner, Siege of

Fort Wagner, Siege of (1963).Constructed on the northern end but extending completely across Morris Island, Fort (or Battery) Wagner was integral to the Confederate defensive system protecting Charleston Harbor. Along with the batteries directly across the channel at Fort Moultrie, and with Fort Sumter only a mile and a half away, Fort Wagner had to be taken before Union forces could capture Charleston. Wagner was literally built of sand, with thick sloping walls 20 feet tall lined in front with abatis (sharpened tree branches) and benefitting from high tides, when seawater narrowed the approach to the fort and filled the ditch Confederates dug just behind the abatis.

On 10 July 1863, the Federal army took control of the southern end of Morris Island. The next day Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore ordered a dawn attack against Wagner. Brig. Gen. George C. Strong with two and a half brigades dashed against the fort's 1,200 defenders under the command of William Taliaferro. Strong's force was repulsed with a loss of 339 men against 12 Confederate casualties. From Charleston, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard sent another 600 men to reinforce the fort.

Gillmore, who had become the Union's most renowned artillerist after he had forced the capitulation of Fort Pulaski at Savannah in April 1862, brought in heavy weaponry. On 18 July, he began a daylong bombardment with twenty six rifled guns, ten heavy mortars, and the additional firepower provided by Adm. John Dahlgren's naval force of monitors and warships. Meanwhile, Gillmore's infantry organized for the rush everyone knew would follow.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops commanded by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, spearheaded General Strong's infantry assault of 5,624 men. It became quickly apparent that Gillmore's fierce bombardment had done no damage to Wagner's 1,785‐man garrison. The attackers made it up past the obstacles and temporarily held a position on the fort's parapet before being repulsed. The Union suffered 246 dead, 880 wounded, and 389 missing for 1,515 total casualties. Of these, the losses of Shaw and 272 of his 650 men were the most conspicuous. Confederates lost 36 killed, 133 wounded, and 5 missing.

With two failed infantry assaults, Gillmore began formal siege operations. He continued to hammer away with artillery; an estimated 10,000 shells struck at Wagner. On 6 September, the fifty‐seventh day of the siege, Union soldiers had completed digging a series of ditches that zigzagged forward and had reached the abatis. Gillmore ordered an infantry assault for the next day, but the Confederates had slipped away during the night after Beauregard recognized the impossibility of a further defense of Wagner.

For months afterward, when reports of this encounter could get past the news about the Battle of Gettysburg and the siege of Vicksburg, the Northern press praised the heroic conduct of the black soldiers as proof that black men would fight and die for the Union. Confederates inadvertently contributed to the praise when in the aftermath of the 18 July battle, they threw Shaw's body into a common grave with twenty of his men. With news reported by the South that the young hero had been “buried … with his niggers,” the North had its most important martyr to the brotherhood of man since abolitionist John Brown was hanged in 1859.

The 1989 film Glory graphically depicts the battle at Fort Wagner.


Luis F. Emilio , A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty‐Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863–1865, 1894.
Joseph T. Glatthaar , Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and Their White Officers, 1990.
Russell Duncan . Blue‐Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, 1994.

Russell Duncan

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