Captain Garth W. James of the 54th Massachusetts Recalls the Assault on Fort Wagner

After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in January 1863, the northern states began recruiting African American regiments for military service.  The first northern regiment of African American soldiers to head south was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the unit featured in the 1989 film Glory.  Although the enlisted men in these regiments were black, the officers were white, and often they were combat veterans of other regiments who transferred in after being recruited or recommended for the posts.  Robert Gould Shaw, the Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts, had been recruited from the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry and had fought at the battles of Cedar Mountain and Antietam.

Another officer in the 54th was Garth W. James (pictured at right), a brother of the 19th and early 20th century writer Henry James.  Born on July 21st, 1845, James was just 17 years old when he enlisted in the 44th Massachusetts Infantry in the summer of 1862.  He rose to the rank of Sergeant and saw action along the North Carolina coast.  James was recommended by his commanding officer for an officer’s  commission with the 54th, and he was mustered in as the Regimental Adjutant and a 1st Lieutenant in the spring of 1863.

The 54th left Massachusetts for South Carolina on May 28th and arrived at Hilton Head on June 3rd.  The regiment first saw action on July 16th on James Island before being moved to Morris Island, where Major General Quincy Gillmore was preparing an assault on Fort Wagner, one of the defenses of heavily fortified Charleston Harbor.  The 54th was to lead the charge and would be followed by nine white regiments from two infantry brigades.

Garth James participated in the July 18th assault on Fort Wagner and wrote an account of the action after the war.  Here are some excerpts from that account, beginning just prior to the early evening attack, when Brigadier General George C. Strong, the 54th’s brigade commander addressed the unit.

Gen. Strong, mounted on a superb gray charger, in full dress, white gloves, a yellow bandana handkerchief coiled around his neck, approaches Col. Shaw to give the final orders for advance.  He tells him that he desires to address a few words to his men. He stands before them and asks that the brave color bearers step out of the ranks. He takes the colors from the sergeants’ hands and waves them aloft as a presage of a victory near at hand. To this signal of Gen. Strong respond the deafening cheers of this mighty host of men, about to plunge themselves into the fiery vortex of Hell. Strong asks them whether their bayonets are secure. The answer comes in tones of defiant affirmation. He tells them that these glorious colors must be planted on the fort, and that they must hold them planted there. After which the bugle sounds the advance.

As I turned to cheer the men, under the example of Col Shaw, whose footsteps almost I followed, Fort Wagner made herself known to us in tones which left no doubt as to our proximity. We have now reached the first obstruction to our passage the first chevaux-de-frise; this is the signal for her mightiest effort, and eighteen pieces of artillery, shotted with grape and canister, direct themselves into our melting line. To Shaw, in his boyish ardor, it undoubtedly seemed as if the worst had come and gone, and with the spectacle of a line fiercely broken there seemed no time for any other consideration save to urge on his men to swifter assault! After this mighty shock there followed perhaps five seconds of calm. It was the calm which precedes the reloading. To every soul in that surging column it must have seemed an eternity!  A broken line, a mighty cheer! the flash of hand grenades and musketry from the parapet of Wagner, the renewed storm of grape and canister from her remorseless guns, and all individuality vanished from the line behind me! It was the moment for the final summons! the work had been swiftly done, the thunder was the funeral oration.

Gathering together a knot of men after the suspense of a few seconds, I waved my sword for a further charge toward the living line of fire above us. We had gone then some thirty yards, groping, but determinedly onwards, the ranks obliquely following the swords of those they trusted, and the onward tread of that little group who waved their lurid and smoky flags. At this point, the line of battle melted almost away; it had become an excited mass of men unable through the reaping fire to close up, the ranks mowed down at almost every step. Suddenly, a shell tore my side. In the frenzy of excitement it seemed a painless visitation. The nearer our approach, the easier seemed the way! We were now under the glare of that mountain of fire, and to cross the ditch did not seem out of the question…

A still further advance brought us to the second obstruction, the second abattis, or chevaux-de-frise, in front of the ditch. The enemy’s fire did not abate for this crossing, and here it was I received another wound, a canister ball in my foot, the direction of this blow demonstrating to me afterward that we were in close proximity to the limit for the depression of their artillery. It was becoming then a question of hand grenades, of torpedoes, of bayonets and musketry. As I stood faltering with the shock of this wound, the advancing column, passing by me and over me, with deafening shouts and deafening curses filled the alternating spaces of deathly missiles in the atmosphere.

The enemy, maddened by our contiguity, redoubled the vigor of its fire…Our heroic color bearers, bearing the State colors and the Stars and Stripes, had reached the ramparts with some forty men led by Capt. Appleton, of Boston. To a Hayti negro, long a citizen of this country, had been confided the national colors of the regiment. Wounded unto death, this dauntless negro, fired with a courage which had no bounds, had planted his colors in the southeast bastion of Fort Wagner. Surrounded by the color guard, crippled but still living, unaided and unsustained to any great extent by the white soldiers of the storming column, rallied for twenty minutes within the precincts of the bastion of this rebel Hell!. Vanquished, overpowered, after a hand to hand fight with bayonets, these trusted black soldiers of Massachusetts retired from the position they could not hold…

From the fiery furnace of this encounter I had dragged myself down toward the ocean on the beach. The hitherto staggering column was no longer advancing on the work! The onward mass of the Union army had been transformed into a phalanx of death and defeat…From the front, from the right flank, from the left came the interminable fire. From Fort Sumter, Fort Johnson, Fort Gregg, Fort Simpkins, and Fort Cheves on our flank, and Fort Wagner on our front, came all that their best effort could achieve in the work of human destruction…

After dragging myself away along the beach for some distance, I found a knoll, under which I became less exposed to the still terrific fire. It happened shortly after this, and providentially to me, that some ambulance men from my own regiment, with an empty stretcher, passed me while stampeding to the rear. They placed me on the stretcher; consciousness to me was fast playing itself out. Only one distinct recollection I now possess, and that was after being borne for a distance to the rear, and still under the mercy of Wagner’s fitful guns, a round shot blew off the head of the stretcher bearer in my rear producing a horrible and instant death…

A tender Providence had laid his hand on me, and, in some marvelous manner, I found myself within the tents of the Sanitary Commission, nearly three miles away. This must have been in the early morning of the following day.

–Garth W. James, “The Assault on Fort Wagner” in War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume 1.

The July 18th assault on Fort Wagner had failed, and at a cost of over 1500 total Union casualties.  The 54th Massachusetts had 34 killed, 146 wounded, and 92 missing or captured.  Twenty four of the wounded died later from their wounds.  One of those killed was Colonel Shaw.  General Strong was among the mortally wounded; he lingered until July 30.

Although Fort Wagner remained in Confederate hands after the July 18th assualt (until it was abandoned in September),  the sacrifices made by the men of the 54th Massachusetts were not in vain.   They had showed the skeptics and doubters that black soldiers could and would fight bravely, and they would prove to be a valuable asset in the Union war effort.

Garth W. James recovered enough from his wounds that he eventually rejoined the 54th.  He was promoted to Captain in 1865 and was mustered out of the army in August of that year.  In the early 1870’s he moved to Milwaukee.  James suffered from the effects of his war wounds for the rest of his life, and his health deteriorated.  He died in Milwaukee on November 15th,  1883 at age 38.

Additional sources:

A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick W. Dyer

Garth W. James Obituary from the New York Times, published November 23, 1883

History and Roster of E. B. Wolcott Post No. 1, Department of Wisconsin, Grand Army of the Republic

History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863-1865 by Luis F. Emilio

Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1851-1865 by William F. Fox

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