This was the context and frame into which the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment marched a little more than a month later, when it spearheaded the attack on Fort Wagner the night of July 18, 1863. The unit, raised largely in Boston and numbering among its members the sons of Frederick Douglass, was highly motivated to win not just honor but also equal pay and basic rights. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny he has earned the right to citizenship,” Douglass declared. His sons Lewis Douglass, 20, and Charles, 18, had been among the first to sign up.
The major events at Fort Wagner were famously dramatized in the film “Glory.” Less well known are the smaller details, such as the fact that the 54th was half dead with fatigue before it ever began the charge, with nothing to eat for two days but crackers and coffee, while marching through swamps and sleeping without tents in a pouring rain. They arrived at the attack point with just five minutes or so to rest before forming up to lead the charge. “They looked weary and worn,” said a witness.
To reach Fort Wagner, the heavily defended redoubt near Charleston, S.C., they had to cross 600 yards of sand, then a ditch filled with three feet of water, with no cover. Grapeshot tore through them with 200 yards still to go. Yet somehow they made it to the ditch and up the parapet.
Carrying the colors was William Carney, sergeant of Company C. According to Carney’s own account as well as those of witnesses, he grabbed the flag when the color sergeant was shot, then pressed forward with it, staying near Robert Gould Shaw, the same white officer who had petitioned Stanton for black recruitment in 1862. Shaw cried, “Onward, boys!” as he led his men over the ditch. Carney struggled to the top of the parapet, where he was struck instantly by fire, taking bullets in the thigh and head — yet managed to plant the flag as he fell on his knees, and keep it in place. He lay down on the slope, trying to get as much cover as possible as the battle raged for about 25 more minutes, before the regiment “melted away under the enemy’s fire, their bodies falling down the slope and into the ditch.” Among those bodies was Shaw’s. As the force retreated, Carney somehow dragged himself away on his knees — still holding the flag.
Carney was clutching it when he entered the field hospital, to the cheers of his fellow soldiers. “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground,” he said. He would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
The 54th Massachusetts became the most celebrated black regiment, but it represented just 600 men out of the 180,000 African Americans who fought for the Union. Of those, 37,300 would die, and more than 20 would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
In 1865, when the fighting was over, another emotionally fraught meeting took place in Boston. This time the subject was a suitable memorial to Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts, which would eventually result in the famed sculpture by Augustus St. Gaudens in Boston Common. The meeting was called by a now-aging black merchant, one who had practically bankrupted himself in helping to raise, feed and equip black troops during the war. His name was Joshua Bowen Smith.