Commemorating the 54th Massachusetts in the Heart of the Rebellion


This Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’s unsuccessful assault at Battery Wagner outside of Charleston. Though the amount of attention focused on this event pales in comparison with the recent commemoration of the battle of Gettysburg, the event constitutes the “high water-mark” of the black soldier experience in the Civil War and in our popular memory. This is due in large part to the success and continued popularity of the movie, “Glory”. On the one hand, the movie obscures the rich history of those black men who fought for the United States during the war beyond the 54th, but it also opens a door that will hopefully be exploited by those involved in this commemoration over the course of the week.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that this is the same city where the Civil War began on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter and in a state that is still bitterly divided over whether the Confederate flag ought to be displayed on state house grounds. In 1961 the Francis Marion Hotel refused to admit African American delegates from northern states, who traveled to the city to take part in a Civil War Centennial Commission meeting. Fifty years later and the commemorative landscape looks very different indeed. To mark the occasion, the city and surrounding communities are going all out.

On Thursday, more than 50 black re-enactors from five states and the District of Columbia travel by boat to Morris Island, where they will fire a salute and lay a wreath in honor of the fallen. The battery itself has been lost to time and tides. The re-enactors will camp in several sites around Charleston beginning on Tuesday.

On Thursday evening, at about the hour of the attack, there will be a concert of Civil War music at Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island. Then 294 luminaries will be lit on a field honoring those both North and South who perished at Wagner.

“Glory” will be shown Friday on an outdoor screen in Marion Square in Charleston. The 1989 film starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman helped bring the story of the 54th Massachusetts to a wider audience.

Scholars and authors gather at the historic Dock Street Theatre on Saturday to discuss the 1863 Charleston campaign. Today, a monument to the fallen at Battery Wagner will be dedicated on Charleston’s Battery. During the week, there will be living history events including musket firings, drills and talks at Moultrie.

Local coverage of the anniversary can be found here and here. Click here for a more detailed list of events, including times, throughout the week. No, this is not your grandfather’s Civil War commemoration.

10 comments… add one
  • Lee Jul 18, 2013 @ 13:01

    I think it should be remembered that the 54th did not assault Battery Wagner alone on July 18th, although it led the assault and, for understandable reasons, is the most famous regiment of all those that participated. Like the 54th, many of these other regiments suffered heavy casualties in the attack. The 48th New York, known as the “Continental Guard” (because its men came from multiple states) and “Perry’s Saints” (because its first commander, Colonel James H. Perry, was a minister, and because many of its men were seminary students or others from strongly religious backgrounds) lost 83 killed or mortally wounded, according to the official figures, out of about five hundred men and sixteen officers (another source says that 420 men from the unit participated in the attack).

  • Yulanda Burgess Jul 17, 2013 @ 7:45

    I don’t know the gentleman in the center of the photograph, but he is probably the southern based 54th member. Yes, his uniform is bleached and of poor quality. He probably made a sutler purchase, and probably worn it for years. It’s not even a frock but something in-between. Unfortunately, this is what happens when one purchases poor quality uniforms; its always a buyer beware situation. There are only a few people out there who make high quality uniforms. They are expensive and there is a waiting list. The wool, dyes and stitching are top quality and the uniforms can last for years with the wool not shrinking and it being color-fast. They are also lighter as these artisans try to mimic the originals as closely as possible. Also, maintenance makes a difference in the wear and tear on these modern made uniforms. There is one maker in Wisconsin who gets his wool from a European mill as the wool weight, weave and dye is similar to that of the originals. Same with kepis and forge caps. Unfortunately, people tend to buy based on budget and not quality. That said… you can cover your eyes and reflect that it’s nice to see that there is a commemoration and coverage of a 150th event highlighting a USCT. I wish I could be there.


  • Doug didier Jul 17, 2013 @ 5:45

    Dr Wise and Roland present talks at USCB Arts Center..

  • London John Jul 17, 2013 @ 5:05

    Bryan, I understand you’re a Re-enactor, so maybe you can answer the questions about uniforms. Firstly, are re-enactors’ uniforms dyed with modern chemical dyes or mid-19th-century dyes? Secondly, what dyes were used for union blue? Was it indigo, the newly-invented anilene dyes, or something else? And how did they stand up to rain and sun over several years? It seems likely that Massachussetts would have made sure the 54th had proper new uniforms, but I guess a lot of contractors would have used inferior or insufficient dyes. Also, did the USCT in general get new uniforms when recruited, or were they sometimes issued with castoffs?

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that maybe the guy in the discoloured tunic looks more like a union soldier after a few years in the field than the ones in proper dark blue?

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 16, 2013 @ 7:38

    Why is the guy in the middle of the picture wearing a purple frock coat?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2013 @ 7:51

      I have no idea. It does, however, look sharp.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 16, 2013 @ 10:28

        Actually, it looks bleached…

        • Whit Jul 17, 2013 @ 13:25

          I remember reading at least one story where soldiers in an Ohio unit received frocks that faded to purple after several weeks in the field. This may actually be a very accurate period time piece, even if unintended.

  • Craig L. Jul 16, 2013 @ 5:18

    Ferris Bueller? In a battle? Get real.

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