The July 18th, 1863 assault of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry upon Fort Wagner on Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina, cemented that regiments place in history. The 54th led the attack on the fort that day, and although Federal forces were unable to capture the works, the valor of the regiment proved that African American troops would fight as hard and as bravely as any soldiers.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commanding the 54th, was killed during the assault while leading the right wing of the regiment’s attack. Lieutenant Colonel Edward N. Hallowell, who commanded the left wing, then assumed command. Hallowell, who was wounded in the assault, filed this after action report:
MORRIS ISLAND, S.C.,
November 7, 1863.
GENERAL: In answer to your request that I furnish a report of the part taken by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers in the late assault upon Fort Wagner, I have to state:
During the afternoon of the 18th of July last, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers, Col. R. G. Shaw commanding, landed upon Morris Island and reported at about 6 p.m. to Brig. Gen. G. C. Strong. Colonel Shaw’s command present consisted of a lieutenant-colonel of the field, a surgeon, adjutant and quartermaster of the staff, 8 captains, and 11 subaltern officers of the line and 600 enlisted men. General Strong presented himself to the regiment and informed the men of the contemplated assault upon Fort Wagner and asked them if they would lead it. They answered in the affirmative. The regiment was then formed in column by wing, at a point upon the beach a short distance in the advance of the Beacon House. Col. R. G. Shaw commanded the right wing, and Lieut. Col. E. N. Hallowell the left. In this formation, as the dusk of the evening came on, the regiment advanced at quick time, leading the column; the enemy opened upon us a brisk fire; our pace now gradually increased till it became a run. Soon canister and musketry begun to tell upon us. With Colonel Shaw leading, the assault was commenced. Exposed to the direct fire of canister and musketry, and, as the ramparts were mounted, to a like fire on our flanks, the havoc made in our ranks was very great. Upon leaving the ditch for the parapet, they obstinately contested with the bayonet our advance. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the men succeeded in driving the enemy from most of their guns, many following the enemy into the fort. It was here, upon the crest of the parapet, that Colonel Shaw fell; here fell Captains Russell and Simpkins; here also were most of the officers wounded. The colors of the regiment reached the crest, and were there fought for by the enemy; the State flag then torn from its staff, but the staff remains with us. Hand-grenades were now added to the missiles directed against the men.
The fight raged here for about an hour. When compelled to abandon the fort, the men formed a line about 700 yards from the fort, under the command of Capt. Luis F. Emilio, the ninth captain in the line. The other captains were either killed or wounded.
The regiment then held the front until relieved by the Tenth Connecticut Regiment at about 2 a.m. of the 19th. The assault was made upon the south face of the fort. So many of the officers behaved with marked coolness and bravery, I cannot mention any above the others. It is due, however, to the following-named enlisted men that they be recorded above their fellows for special merit: Sergt. Robert J. Simmons, Company B; Sergt. William H. Carney, Company C; Corpl. Henry F. Peal, Company F; Private George Wilson, Company A.
The following is the list of casualties: Col. R. G. Shaw, killed; Lieut. Col. E. N. Hallowell, wounded: Adjt. G. W. James, wounded; Capt. S. Willard, wounded: Capt. C. J. Russell, missing, supposed killed; Capt. W. H. Simpkins. missing, supposed killed; Capt. George Pope, wounded; Capt. E. L. Jones, wounded; Capt. J. W. M. Appleton, wounded; Capt. O. E. Smith, wounded; First Lieut. R. H. L. Jewett, wounded; First Lieut. W. H. Homans, wounded; Second Lieut. C. E. Tucker, wounded; Second Lieut. J. A. Pratt, wounded.
Enlisted men–killed, 9; wounded, 147; missing, 100; total, 256.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. N. HALLOWELL,
Colonel, Comdg. Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers.
General TRUMAN SEYMOUR,
Commanding U.S. Forces, Morris Island, S.C.
Originally listed as missing, both Captains Russell and Simpkins were killed in action. Sergeant William Carney rescued the regiment’s national flag from certain capture, suffering two musket ball wounds in the process. “Boys, the old flag
never touched the ground” Carney told his fellow soldiers in the 54th after safely bringing the flag back. He would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor. The regiment’s casualties were later revised to 34 killed, 146 wounded, and 92 missing or captured for a total of 272. Total Union casualties for the attack (which involved 10 infantry regiments and two batteries of artillery) were 246 killed, 880 wounded, and 389 missing or captured. After the July 18th assault failed to carry the position, Union forces began a siege. The Confederates withdrew from Fort Wagner on the night of September 6th-7th, 1863.
A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863-1865 by Luis F. Emilio.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXVIII, Part 1.