Earlier today I shared some thoughts about the ongoing controversy surrounding the appointment of Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the new president of the College of Charleston. As you already know, the controversy surrounding this choice has to do with his close identification with the Confederate flag and Confederate heritage generally. This past July McConnell was invited to speak at the 150th anniversary of the assault at Battery Wagner, which highlights the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It’s well worth reading. Thanks to Brent Everitt of the National Park Service for passing this along.
It is a pleasure to be with you today. I am particularly humbled that you would ask me to make this 150th anniversary address of the assault on Battery Wagner that occurred on the evening of July 18, 1863. A hundred and fifty years ago tonight, the air was full of sulfuric smoke, there was the rumble of guns, and there were the cries of agony, as men, both blue and grey, shed their blood and stood their ground in a test of wills and ideals. The War Between the States, from a southern perspective, was on one hand the question of the independence of the states and the superiority of each state over the federal union. For many, it was a struggle to win back the freedom their forefathers had won from the British. It was for others a question of honor and duty. For others, it also meant the battle over the institution of slavery. For others, it was a battle to simply maintain the status quo, security they had come to enjoy, and thus, pretend they just didn’t see the inconsistency in freedom and slavery. Still for others, it was the battle to defend home and possessions from a destructive invasion and to obtain security for their families in the uncertainty of change that could come in the future with a Union victory.
On the Union side, the perspective of the Civil War was as diverse. For many, it was the protection and the defense of what they had come to believe was an undissolvable union of the states into a federal unitary republic. For others, it was a question of duty and honor. For others, it had become a question of will and of pride that the North would impose the Union back on the states they viewed were rebels as wrongly striking out at the Constitution. For still others, the men of color, it was a struggle for personal freedom and the opportunity to throw off the shackles of slavery for their brothers and sisters. And for other white Union soldiers, who believed in abolition, it was an opportunity to strike at the institution of slavery. Yes, on that night, the diversity on both sides was about as great as the artillery rumbles throughout the day leading to this historic and defining battle.
When one is asked to give a memorial address, the first question that comes to mind is: “shall I simply recite the facts as they are laid out in the history books and commend those who fought and sacrificed on the momentous event?” That is an easy and somewhat settling way to handle the opportunity. But another way is to review the event through the eyes of the men who were there that evening and thus, through their minds, try to determine why they acted as they did. I believe this approach gives you a chance to peer into history, not from a contemporary standpoint, but rather through the eyes of those who witnessed the carnage and the sacrifice and who, though facing one another to the end, earned the respect of each as fellow soldiers in a struggle among differing American brothers.
So I have chosen to try, as best I can, to relate to you what happened on that momentous day through the sight of those who were there. Those who were lined up against one another, if they could be with us this day, would not quarrel over what we call it, but rather would stand their ground if we should attempt to discolor or distort what occurred on that occasion. Let’s look back and in our thoughts try to stand in their shoes for a few brief moments.
As members of the 54th Massachusetts, these freed black men looked out on an America, where slavery was an institution protected by the Constitution and laws of the land. They saw their fellow human beings being held in bondage. Many in this unit were educated and understood the moral nightmare that this institution had placed on a fledgling new nation. A nation where the Constitution was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. These were soldiers who looked around at the white troops, blue and grey, knowing that many looked upon them with disdain and with an attitude that the 54th could perhaps not do as well as the white soldiers that day in defending the Union. Despite the prejudice and without a specific promise, they bravely and proudly stood there with excitement convinced that they were helping to end the institution of slavery. On that beach that evening, these men were bound to their concept of duty. They would march down that beach into battle and defend the Union with the hope that they would be helping to get for others what they themselves enjoyed – the opportunity to be free men. They knew that in the world in which they lived, racism was widespread and it knew no one section of the country. Even if slavery was ended, they, and those they came to help, would continue to confront prejudice but they would be free to change that by equal opportunity.
As they looked at one another that day – July 18, 1863 – they knew they were neophytes having just recently been baptized by fire only two days before. Though they were full of idealism, they knew realistically that the task was loaded with difficulty and death. They had trained hard and realized they had earned the right to stand on the beach and be counted as an equal in the color of blue. They also knew that the object of their fight was a fort known as Battery Wagner, or Fort Wagner, down the beach on Morris Island. They looked over at their commander, Colonel Robert Shaw, who was a graduate of Harvard University and the son of abolitionist parents. He stood there with them proudly and treated them as co-equals. They gazed at him as a friend. Inwardly, they were determined to show him the same bravery and dedication that he had shared with them. Looking again down the beach, they saw the living target of the coming assault, but their memories reminded them of what had occurred just shortly before. Brigadier General Quincy A. Gilmore had taken charge of the Department of the South on June 11. General Gilmore had his sights on the capture of Charleston, South Carolina, and intended it to occur by running the Confederates off of Morris Island and then reducing Fort Sumter to rubble, thus allowing the federal fleet to sail into Charleston. With this strategy in mind, on July 10, 1863, he deployed troops on the southern end of Morris Island and successfully gained a foothold.
Satisfied that he could go forward, he prepared an assault on July 11. On July 11, an attack was made on Fort Wagner. It included the regiment of the 7th Connecticut, which I might add, has a connection to the Hunley because a 7th Connecticut Volunteers medal was found on the remains of one of the crewmen aboard the H.L. Hunley submarine belonging to Ezra Chamberlain. The 7th Connecticut, along with others, bravely charged the fort. The Confederates bravely and vigorously defended the fort, losing only 12, killed or wounded, while the attack cost the Union 330 men. Now, General Gilmore had to make another attempt. That move involved the soldiers of the 54th Mass. On that fateful evening, these Union soldiers looked out and knowing what had occurred, saw what was before them. They knew well the great risk before them, but their effort had to equal and exceed what the Union troops had previously tried.
What they knew was Battery Wagner had become a fully-enclosed and well-defended fort. It measured only 250 by 100 yards, but reached from the southern neck of Cummings Point to the Atlantic, on the east; it stretched to a nearly impossible-to-cross swamp, on the west. It’s slopping sand and reinforcements made it almost completely bomb-proof for its defending troops, and it also contained guns, including a ten-inch Columbiad which could fire a 128-pound shell. The fort also had a water-filled ditch 10 feet wide and five feet deep, buried land mines, and razor sharp palmetto stakes, providing additional obstacles to this soon attacking force, the 54th. The difference this day for the 54th, over the previous failed force, was that they would have artillery support. Brigadier General Gilmore thought that with the heavy cannonade, the fort would be pulverized since the guns from the Federal fleet also included the new USS Ironsides, a truly floating platform of forceful guns. As they watched that afternoon, they saw the guns firing many times over, into, and around the fort. The ground shook as the artillery battle continued. Was it enough to give them the opportunity to post the victory they wished to make? As the sunset moved further west that day, they saw a huge cloud of smoke hanging over the fort.
Now, let us go to the Confederates inside of the fort. They knew that the Union was going to attack, and they knew if they were to save Charleston, they needed, though outnumbered, to somehow beat back the attack which was certain to come. They huddled down with one another, looking as the fort shook even inside their massive, bomb-proof room. They knew there was hell outside and an attack was eminent. They would be called upon to leave the safety of this bomb-proof shelter, climb up to the ramparts of the fort, and defend it against the assault. As they looked at each other, the faces they saw that they came from different walks of life – some rich, some poor – didn’t matter. Each felt a duty to protect his home or his state and saw down the beach an army who was coming to take them out. From their perspective, the security of their future was at stake in holding off the attack. What they had seen down the beach could be the shadow of death getting prepared to approach.
From the eyes of both the blue and the grey, they saw the light of the setting sun casting an aura on all of the smoke that hung over Fort Wagner. On the Union side, Colonel Shaw formed his soldiers to be the vanguard of the Union attack force. They had been given the opportunity to lead the Union attack, and for Colonel Shaw, this was the grand opportunity he wanted to prove to all that the black soldier could fight as well as any white soldier, blue or grey. He readied his men, and as each looked to the other, they knew they were marching into the possible jaws of death. Would they survive that day? A question that traveled through their minds. And would they be victorious? Or would they fall on the sands and be forgotten in time? For them, the uncertainty of the future was not what they could be focused on now, but rather the immediacy of the moment – to move forward and beat the Confederate enemy. Colonel Shaw positioned himself with the Stars and Stripes in the first line.
On his command, at 7:45, the 54th Mass started down the beach, with Shaw raising his sword. They began to move quicker and quicker. As they did, they saw the beach narrowing, with the Atlantic on the right, the swamp on the left, and the armed fort ahead. As they came ever closer to Fort Wagner, the Union bombardments concluded and died. The Confederates rapidly went to their battle stations ready to begin not only shelling them, but also firing with their muskets at whatever moved close. As the 54th Mass came within 150 yards, the Confederates began firing. They were light flashes, white flashes, cries, soldiers falling, and it was like a giant fireworks display as the battle began. There was the smell of hot human flesh, and soldiers on each side watched their friends begin to take hits. Despite the falling on all sides, the 54th Massachusetts surged over the sharpened wooden stakes that ringed the fort. Through the water-filled ditches, they continued to go forward. Colonel Shaw remained on his feet, climbing up the sandy slope with the others, as they made a determined effort to get to the top of the parapet and face their foes. Colonel Shaw would shout, “Forward 54th!” He then would fall into the sand with three fatal wounds. Fate denied him facing his enemy hand to hand. Nevertheless, a Sergeant William Carney, who saw the chaos in the line, grasped the American flag as he threw away his musket and scrambled up the bullet-swept slope of the fort. Unable to breach the defenses, many soldiers began to retreat while others fired across the ramparts. The Confederates, from their stations, saw the sight of black troops coming forward. They were infuriated that the Union was now using black soldiers to fight them. What they had to realize in this moment of excitement, though, was that these soldiers were performing as well as any other soldiers on the field, and that these union black soldiers were now in the battlefield in a personal fight for the liberty of their brothers – not just for the Union.
Though the 54th Massachusetts was shattered by the attack, Brigadier General George Strong would send his men charging in. Though column after column would go, the Confederates would fire into them, cutting them down. However, the 6th Connecticut had struck the Confederates at their weakest point, and the important battle was now on the southeast slope of the fort, with the 6th Connecticut penetrating the Confederate defenses. Soldiers of the 48th New York succeeded in following the Connecticut troops up the slopes of the southeast bastion. Despite the struggle, this was not a day for a Union victory. The Confederates bravely held their ground. Had reinforcements been brought in that evening, perhaps the Union would have been able to take Fort Wagner. But they did not show up, and the Confederates with counter attacks ably defended the fort. The 54th Massachusetts lost 42% of its ranks in the attack that day. Confederate losses numbered only 174 men, but the Federal casualties numbered 1,515. The Confederate presence at Fort Wagner remained.
Though Brigadier General Gilmore would settle into his Morris Island positions for a lengthy siege, events would finally lead to the Confederate abandonment of Fort Wagner on September 7, 1863. But for the history books, what occurred this day was an enormous achievement. Men, who had to battle bigotry on their own side and face head-on a brave opponent, proved their equal on a battlefield in America. And all the Confederates in a gallant display against overwhelming numbers rose to the challenge and held strong the defense of their homeland. All the men in blue and grey consecrated that ground with their bravery and sacrifice in the performance of duty to become a brotherhood of American soldiers whose legacy will inspire Americans for the generations.
Let me sum up this day by saying that it is one of those great moments in American history where we can look through the eyes of those who were there and learn something that will help us in the future. People have asked me why we relive these historical moments and why we try to see them through the eyes of those who lived in that time. It’s because it gives us an opportunity to remember that America is the story of the evolution of a people from the words first laid down in the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to the practice in reality to its citizens that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.
The story of both the Federals and the Confederates who fought that day is the story of the American people in their travel through time. Throughout our march through history, from the Revolution to the War Between the States to the Spanish American War to the World Wars to the Korean War to the Vietnam War to the civil rights marches – it’s the story of a people, who in the pursuit or defense of freedom as they perceived or understood it, were always willing to put aside the element of fear and answer the call of duty. Men, in both blue and grey, on that beach in 1863, answered the call of duty, based upon their perception of the freedom they were fighting for at that particular moment in time. It is not about being on the right or wrong side of history, but it is more about recognizing and understanding that throughout history Americans have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the quest for freedom and the defense of freedom for others.
We pause on this evening, not only to salute the bravery of all – the Confederates who would not win the freedom of a new country and the Union soldiers who would preserve the Union – but to also recognize that the freedom the 54th Mass. saw through their eyes for their fellow men would become a reality, if others were willing to sacrifice. The struggle would not end in that war but over a century plus to come. Others would take up the mantle. Let the deeds of all who served in that war, the blue and the grey, be a reminder to us Americans that freedom did not come easy for any generation of our people, and for this Republic to be passed on, from generation to generation, it will take that type of sacrifice time and time again. We have a shared collective history, and if we learn from it instead of using it as a wedge or division, it will give us the opportunity to grow as a people and to understand that the American destiny lies in preserving the brotherhood of bravery in the pursuit and the defense of freedom in the future, not in a quarrel over the past as to who was completely right or wrong.
At the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox, the standard of respect for the soldiers on both sides was set and recollected in words for posterity by General Joshua Chamberlain. Reflecting on that emotion-laden day after the war, he stated about the Confederate soldiers, and I quote, “Nor blame them too much . . . nor us for not blaming them more. . .although, as we believed, fatally wrong in striking at the old flag, misreading its deeper meaning, and the innermost law of the people’s life, blind to the signs of the times in the march of man, they fought as they were taught, true to such ideals as they saw and put into their cause their best. For us, they were fellow soldiers as well, suffering the fate of arms. We could not look into those brave bronze faces, and those battered flags we had met on so many fields where glorious manhood lend a glory to the earth that bore it, and think of personal hate and mean revenge.”
So on this day with the same charity of understanding, let us salute these men, both blue and grey, as honor answered honor in our journey to perfect in practice our Constitution. And may the light perpetual shine upon them, and God Bless the United States!