Leads Union assault on Fort Wagner

The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts finally arrived at Charleston Harbor on July 18, 1863. The regiment was chosen to lead an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold that guarded the entrance to the harbor. The soldiers had marched all of the previous day and night, along beaches and through swamps, in terrible heat and humidity. But even though they were tired and hungry by the time they reached Charleston, they still proudly took their positions at the head of the assault.

As evening came, Shaw led the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts in a charge toward the fort. They were immediately hit with heavy artillery and musket fire from the Confederate troops inside the fort. Shaw was killed in the fighting, along with nearly half of his six hundred officers and men. But the remaining troops kept moving forward, crossed the moat (deep ditch sometimes filled with water) surrounding the fort, and climbed up the stone wall. They were eventually forced to retreat when reinforcements did not appear in time, but by then they had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.

The next day, Confederate troops dug a mass grave and buried Shaw's body along with his fallen black soldiers, despite the fact that the bodies of high-ranking officers were usually returned by both sides. The Confederates intended this action to be an insult, since they believed that whites were superior to blacks and thus deserved a better burial. Several weeks later, when Union forces finally captured Fort Wagner, a Union officer offered to search for the grave and recover Shaw's body. But Shaw's father refused the offer. "We hold that a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen," he wrote.

Even though the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts did not succeed in capturing Fort Wagner, their brave performance in

EiS^; William H. Carney, the First SS Black Soldier Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor

William H. Carney was born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. When his owner died in 1854, he and his family received their freedom. They soon moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, because they felt that black people were not safe in the South. When the call went out for black men to join the Union Army, he was among the first to enlist. He joined the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment in February 1863 for a three-year term. He quickly impressed Colonel Shaw and the other officers with his bravery and strength.

Carney played a leading role in the assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863. As the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts moved forward, artillery and gunfire exploded all around them. Many of his fellow soldiers were killed. At one point, Carney found the American flag lying on the ground. The man who had been carrying it was dead. He picked up the flag and continued his charge across the moat and up the wall of the fort. He caught up with Shaw just as his commanding officer was fatally shot. He then stuck the flagpole he was carrying into the ground and crouched on the top of the wall, firing repeatedly at Confederates inside the fort. He kept on fighting even though he received serious wounds to his chest, arms, and legs.

As the Union troops began to fall back from the assault, Carney limped back to his regiment. He tried to raise their spirits

How Old William Carney
William H. Carney. (Reproduced with permission of Fisk University Library.)

and convince them to return to the fort. But after seeing his wounds, the officer in charge told him he had done enough already. Carney replied: "I have only done my duty, the old flag never touched the ground." He then handed the flag over to the officer and stumbled alone to the field hospital.

After recovering from his wounds, Carney received a discharge from the Union Army. He lived in the Boston area with his wife, Susanna Williams, after the war. He worked for the city as the superintendent of street lighting and as a mail carrier. In May 1900, Carney received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at Fort Wagner. He thus became the first African American to win the nation's highest military honor. Carney died in 1908 following an elevator accident that crushed his leg.

battle was considered a triumph. Newspapers throughout the North carried the story, even those that had opposed the enlistment of blacks in the Union Army. People were forced to admit that black men were just as capable as whites of fighting and dying for the Union and freedom. By the end of 1863, sixty new black regiments were being formed across the North. The success of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts and other black regiments not only helped the North win the Civil War, but also led to greater acceptance of blacks in American society.

Shortly after Shaw's death, Governor Andrew began organizing a memorial to him and his fallen soldiers in Boston. He hired the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gau-dens (1848-1907) to design the memorial. The artist finally unveiled his work in 1897, at a ceremony attended by many black Civil War veterans. It shows Shaw on horseback, surrounded by his black troops, as they march southward to fight for freedom and equality for people of all races. "There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man," philosopher William James (1842-1910) said at the dedication. "There on horseback, among them . . . sits the blue-eyed child of fortune, upon whose happy youth every divinity had smiled. Onward they move together, a single resolution kindled in their eyes."

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