Posts Tagged   Robert Shaw

July 21, 1863

Stephens describes the James Island action and the assault on Ft. Wagner in his fifth letter to the Weekly Anglo-African:

Morris Island, S.C., [VT]
July 21,1863.

Mr. Editor:

The month of July has been an eventful one for the 54th. We left our camp at St. Helena on the—inst., and landed at James Island on the—, fought the second battle of James Island1 on Thursday, 16th, escaped the snare which eight thousand rebels had prepared to entrap us with, by silent midnight retreat through bogs, marshes, and dense woods, reaching Morris Island beach on Saturday morning, 18th; marched directly to the front, and made (what has been conceded by every one to be) a heroic charge on Fort Wagner.

In the engagement at James Island we lost 45 killed, wounded and missing. Among the killed are Corporal Holloway, a nephew of Bishop Payne—a brave, intelligent, Christian soldier. Also Sergeant Wilson, Company H, of Chicago. He fought four rebel cavalrymen, slew three, but the fourth gave him a mortal wound. Sergeant Vogelsang of the same company was ordered by a party of rebels to surrender. His answer was, “Never!” and received, it is feared, a mortal wound. The battle commenced at daylight. Companies B, H and K were thrown out about two miles on picket. During Wednesday night and Thursday morning the rebels made repeated advances on our picket line, but were kept at bay by our unerring rifles. At the peep of day all was activity among them. Their long, dark line of battle could barely be discerned. Capt. Russell of Co, H ordered us to fall back on our reserve, at the same time, deploying as skirmishers, the whole rebel line advanced full eight hundred strong. Our picket line retired slowly and reluctantly, delivering their fire as if on a skirmish drill. The rebels yelled and hooted, but they could not drive us, and advanced only as our picket line retired.

The 10th Connecticut regiment was encamped on our extreme left. Had our pickets retired precipitately, as pickets generally do, this regiment would have been captured; but they were enabled to take shelter under the gunboats. When our picket line reached the reserve it had all skedaddled, and we were forced to withstand this attack of superior numbers until we reached the main body of our regiment drawn up in a line of battle, supported by the 1st Connecticut artillery.  On the rebels came. Volley after volley was poured into them, and after a contest of two hours they fled precipitately. They must have suffered terribly. They carried cart loads of dead off the field.

Although there were a great many other troops on the Island, none but the black regiment of Massachusetts fired a gun. The 54th stood between the foes and our white comrades. A great many of the white soldiers were killed and wounded by the enemies shells. Sergeant Merriman of Co. B was shot in the leg. He says the rebels bound it up for him, and gave him water to drink and to bathe his wound. This seems to ill accord with some of the atrocities they are known to have been guilty of.  On that day many of the wounded were killed, and Sergeant Vogelsang was pursued and shot like many others on the banks of an adjoining creek, which is very marshy. The only way that we could secure their bodies after the fight was by boat up the creek. Many of our wounded were shot while lying on the ground. Albert Walls, one of the missing or killed, did not hear the order to fall back and remained at his post and fought until killed or taken prisoner!

It is rumored that the enemy lost a general in the fight. They are known to have an officer killed, but his rank cannot be ascertained. We took eight rebel prisoners. One of our spies penetrated their lines, and found their force to be upwards of eight thousand men. They anticipated inflicting on us another James Island disaster, but our retreat saved us and disappointed them. They did not know that our forces had evacuated the Island until ten o’clock Friday morning. The official report of the killed, wounded and missing has already reached you. Capt. Simpkins1 of Co. K, a brave officer, had his life saved in the engagement. He was attacked by two rebel cavalrymen, when one of his men shot one dead and bayoneted the second one. Every man that fell, fell fighting with his face to the foe.

We left the lower end of Morris Island Saturday morning, and marched slowly and steadily to the front until in sight of Fort Wagner. We had heard of the previous attempt to take it by storm, and knew that nothing but hard fighting, with great sacrifice of life, could result in a successful storming of it. Gen. Strong, the hero of the attack of Saturday, when our regiment reached within range of the shells of the fort, rode out bravely a hundred yards in advance of us and reconnoitered the fort and its surroundings. Rode back to us and briefly addressed us, and asked, “Massachusetts men, are you ready to take that fort ?” The universal answer was, “We will try.” “They are nearly played out. They have but two effective guns,” said he. About sundown we were ordered to advance at the double quickstep, cheering as if going on some mirthful errand. The rebs withheld their fire until we reached within fifty yards of the work, when jets of flame darted forth from every corner and embrasure, and even Fort Sumter poured solid shot and shell on our heads. The 54th, undaunted by the hellish storm, pushed up to the work, down into the moat, and like demons ascended the parapet, found the interior lined with rebels soldiers who were well sheltered and fought them one hour before we were re-enforced; and when the regiment reached us, the 3d New Hampshire, which was presumed to be our re-enforcements, they, to a man, emptied their rifles into us. Thus we lost nearly as many men by the bullets of our presumed friends as by those of our known enemies.

Some few entered the fort, and when they got in, it was so dark that friends could not be distinguished from foes, and there is no doubt but that many a Union soldier was killed by his comrades.

On the whole, this is considered to be a brilliant feat of the 54th. It is another evidence that cannot now be denied, that colored soldiers will dare go where any brave men will lead them. Col. Shaw,is our noble and lamented commander, was the bravest of the brave. He did not take his thirty paces to the rear, but led the column up to the fort, and was the first man who stood oh the parapet of the fort. When he reached it he said, “Come on, men! Follow me!” and he either received a mortal wound and fell over the wall, or stumbled into the Fort and was killed. If he still lives, it is miraculous, for he must have fell on glistening bayonets. One of the rebel prisoners says that he is wounded and still lives, but for my part I do not believe it.

Gen. Strong, seeing that the rebels were in too great a force, ordered the retreat, and now comes another chapter which I would fain pass, but my duty tells me that I must advert to it. There were large quantities of whiskey to be had, and the guard placed to guard the line of retreat and to prevent straggling imbibed rather freely. Some of the men of the skedaddling white regiments were fired on and killed, and when some of our wounded were passing to the rear they were murdered by these drunken wretches. One of our Sergeants was shot dead by a private of this guard in the presence of an officer of our regiment who immediately shot the private dead. Dozens of our wounded were drowned. The only good approach to the fort is by the beach. The tide was low when we made the charge, and before we could secure our dead and wounded the tide came up, and such as could not crawl away were drowned.

Our total loss cannot be positively ascertained. It is placed at about 300 killed, wounded and missing: 75 killed, 125 wounded, 100 missing.  It is supposed that Sergeant R. J. Simmons of your city is among the killed. Major Hallowell is badly wounded.

G. E. S

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July 20, 1863

Gooding describes the James Island action and the assault in his 20th letter to the Mercury, and Lewis Douglass describes the battle in a letter to his wife:

Mercury, August 1, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, July 20, 1863

Messrs. Editors:

—At last we have something stirring to record. The 54th, the past week, has proved itself twice in battle. The first was on James Island on the morning of the 16th. There were four companies of the 54th on picket duty at the time; our picket lines extending to the right of the rebel battery, which commands the approach to Charleston through the Edisto river. About 3 o’clock in the morning, the rebels began harassing our pickets on the right, intending, no doubt, to drive them in, so that by daylight the coast would be clear to rush their main force down on us, and take us by surprise. They did not suppose we had any considerable force to the rear of our pickets on the right, as Gen.  Stevenson’s brigade was plain in sight on the left; and their plan, I suppose, was to rush down and cut Gen. Stevenson off. They made a mistake — instead of returning fire, the officer in charge of the pickets directed the men to lie down under cover of a hedge, rightly expecting the rebels to advance by degrees toward our lines. As he expected, at daylight they were within 600 yards of the picket line, when our men rose and poured a volley into them. That was something the rebels didn’t expect — their line of skirmishers was completely broken; our men then began to fall back gradually on our line of battle, as the rebels were advancing their main force on to them. On they came, with six pieces of artillery and four thousand infantry, leaving a heavy force to drive Gen. Stevenson on the left. As their force advanced on our right, the boys held them in check like veterans; but of course they were falling back all the time, and fighting too. After the officers saw there was no chance for their men, they ordered them to move on to a creek under cover of the gunboats. When the rebels got within 900 yards of our line of battle, the right wing of Gen. Terry’s brigade gave them three volleys, which checked their advance. They then made a stand with their artillery and began shelling us, but it had no effect on our forces, as the rebels fired too high. The 6th Connecticut battery then opened fire on them from the right, the John Adams and May Flower from the creek between James and Cole Islands, and the Pawnee and a mortar schooner from the Edisto [i.e., Stono], when the rebels began a hasty retreat. It was a warmer reception than they had expected. Our loss in the skirmishing before the battle, so far as we can ascertain, was nine killed, 13 wounded, and 17 missing, either killed or taken prisoners; but more probably they were driven into the creek and drowned.  Sergeant Wilson, of Co. H, was called upon to surrender, but would not; he shot four men before he was taken. After he was taken they ordered him to give up his pistol which he refused to do, when he was shot through the head.

The men of the 54th behaved gallantly on the occasion — so the Generals say. It is not for us to blow our horn; but when a regiment of white men gave us three cheers as we were passing them, it shows that we did our duty as men should.

I shall pass over the incidents of that day, as regards individuals, to speak of a greater and more terrible ordeal the 54th regiment has passed through. I shall say nothing now of how we came from James to Morris Island; suffice it to say, on Saturday afternoon we were marched up past our batteries, amid the cheers of the officers and soldiers. We wondered what they were all cheering for, but we soon found out. Gen.  Strong rode up, and we halted. Well, you had better believe there was some guessing what we were to do. Gen. Strong asked us if we would follow him into Fort Wagner. Every man said, yes — we were ready to follow wherever we were led. You may all know Fort Wagner is the Sebastopol of the rebels; but we went at it, over the ditch and on to the parapet through a deadly fire; but we could not get into the fort. We met the foe on the parapet of Wagner with the bayonet — we were exposed to a murderous fire from the batteries of the fort, from our Monitors and our land batteries, as they did not cease firing soon enough. Mortal men could not stand such a fire, and the assault on Wagner was a failure. The 9th Me., 10th Conn., 63d Ohio, 48th and 100th N.Y. were to support us in the assault; but after we made the first charge, everything was in such confusion that we could hardly tell where the reserve was. At the first charge the 54th rushed to within twenty yards of the ditches, and, as might be expected of raw recruits, wavered — but at the second advance they gained the parapet. The color bearer of the State colors was killed on the parapet. Col. Shaw seized the staff when the standard bearer fell, and in less than a minute after, the Colonel fell himself.  When the men saw their gallant leader fall, they made a desperate effort to get him out, but they were either shot down, or reeled in the ditch below. One man succeeded in getting hold of the State color staff, but the color was completely torn to pieces.

I have no more paper here at present, as all our baggage is at St.  Helena yet; so I cannot further particularize in this letter. Lieut. Grace was knocked down by a piece of shell, but he is not injured. He showed himself a great deal braver and cooler than any line officer.

J. H. G.

Our correspondent gives a list of killed, wounded and missing. It is the same that we have already published. [Mercury Editor]



I have been in two fights, and am unhurt. I am about to go in another I believe to-night. Our men fought well on both occasions. The last was desperate we charged that terrible battery on Morris Island known as Fort Wagoner, and were repulsed with a loss of 3 killed and wounded. I escaped unhurt from amidst that perfect hail of shot and shell. It was terrible. I need not particularize the papers will give a better than I have time to give. My thoughts are with you often, you are as dear as ever, be good enough to remember it as I no doubt you will. As I said before we are on the eve of another fight and I am very busy and have just snatched a moment to write you. I must necessarily be brief. Should I fall in the next fight killed or wounded I hope to fall with my face to the foe.

If I survive I shall write you a long letter. DeForrest of your city is wounded George Washington is missing, Jacob Carter is missing, Chas Reason wounded Chas Whiting, Chas Creamer all wounded. The above are in hospital.

This regiment has established its reputation as a fighting regiment not a man flinched, though it was a trying time. Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use we had to retreat, which was a very hazardous undertaking. How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. My Dear girl I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I be killed. Remember if I die I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war.

Good Bye to all Write soon

Your own loving LEWIS

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July 19, 1863

Emilio describes the aftermath of the assault ( [BBR], pp.86-93):

Although the storming column and supports did not move forward with a close formation and promptness in support of the Fifty-fourth, which might have won Wagner that night, their attacks when made were delivered with a gallantry and persistence that made their severe losses the more deplorable and fruitless, by reason of such faulty generalship.

When Strong’s brigade advanced, it met the same devastating fire at the defile; but a considerable number of the survivors, mainly of the Sixth Connecticut and Forty-eighth New York, pushed on to the southeast bastion, feebly defended by the Thirty-first North Carolina, and entered, securing a portion of the salient. Farther they could not penetrate against superior numbers. General Strong accompanied his column, and, as always, exhibited the utmost bravery.

General Seymour, learning the failure of Strong’s brigade to carry the work, ordered Colonel Putnam to advance his regiments. That officer gallantly led forward his brigade, meeting the same severe fire as he neared the fort. With survivors of the Seventh New Hampshire, he entered the disputed salient, followed by portions of the Sixty-second and Sixty-seventh Ohio. His One Hundredth New York advanced to a point near the work, in the confusion and darkness poured a volley into our own men in the salient, and then retired. It must be understood, however, that all these regiments suffered severe losses; but losses that night do not necessarily indicate effective regimental action. The greatest number of men in the salient at any time hardly equalled a regiment, and were of different organizations. They were fighting in a place unknown to them, holding their ground and repelling attacks, but were incapable of aggressive action. Fighting over traverses and sand-bags, hemmed in by a fire poured across their rear, as well as from the front and flanks, the struggle went on pitilessly for nearly two hours. Vainly were precious lives freely offered up, in heroic attempts to encourage a charge on the flanking guns. The enveloping darkness covered all; and the valiant, seeing how impotent were their efforts, felt like crying with Ajax, ” Give us but light, 0 Jove! and in the light, if thou seest fit, destroy us! ”

Every field-officer in the bastion was at last struck down except Major Lewis Butler, Sixty-seventh Ohio. Colonel Putnam had been shot through the head. When all hope of expected support was gone, Major Butler sent out the regimental colors, and gave orders to leave the bastion.  There were, according to his account, about one hundred men each of the Sixty-second and Sixty-seventh Ohio, about fifty of the Forty-eighth New York, and some small detachments of other regiments, some with and some without officers. When this force had departed, and the enemy had been re-enforced by the arrival of the Thirty-second Georgia, the wounded, those who feared to encounter the enclosing fire, and those who failed to hear or obey the order for abandonment, were soon surrounded and captured. General Stevenson’s brigade had advanced toward the fort, but it was too late, and the men were withdrawn.

Upon the beach in front of the siege line, drunken soldiers of the regular artillery, with swords and pistol-shots, barred the passage of all to the rear. They would listen to no protestations that the regiments were driven back or broken up, and even brutally ordered wounded men to the front. After a time, their muddled senses came to them on seeing the host of arrivals, while the vigorous actions of a few determined officers who were prepared to enforce a free passage, made further opposition perilous.

Thus ended the great assault on Fort Wagner. It was the second and last attempted. The Confederate loss was 181 killed and wounded, including Lieut.-Col. J. C.  Simkins, Captains W. H. Ryan, W. T. Tatom, and P. H.  Waring, and Lieut. G. W. Thompson, killed. Our loss was 1,515, including 111 officers, and embracing General Seymour wounded, General Strong mortally wounded, and Colonel Putnam (acting brigadier) killed. Of the ten regimental commanders, Colonel Shaw was killed, Col.  J. L. Chatfield, Sixth Connecticut, mortally wounded, and five others wounded. Such severe casualties stamp the sanguinary character of the fighting, and mark the assault as one of the fiercest struggles of the war, considering the numbers engaged. This is further evidenced by the fact that the losses exceeded those sustained by our forces in many much better-known actions during the Rebellion, —notably Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, Cedar Mountain, Chantilly, Prairie Grove, Pleasant Hills, Sailor’s Creek, Jonesborough, Bentonville, and High Bridge, in most of which a much larger Federal force was engaged.  The following is the official report of the part borne by the Fifty-fourth in the assault: —


MORRIS ISLAND, S. C, NOV. 7, 1863.

BRIG.-GEN. T. SEYMOUR, Commanding U. S. Forces, Morris Island, S. C.

GENERAL, — In answer to your request that I furnish you with 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 six o’clock 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, eight captains and eleven subaltern officers of the line and six hundred enlisted men. General Strong presented himself to the regiment, and informed the men of the contemplated assault upon Fort Wagner, and asked 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 evening came on, the regiment advanced at quick time, leading the column. The enemy opened on us a brisk fire, our pace now gradually increasing till it became a run. Soon canister and musketry began to tell on 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 Russel and Simpkins; here were also most of the officers wounded. The colors of the regiment reached the crest, and were there fought for by the enemy ; the State flag there 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 seven hundred 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 at about two o’clock 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 especial merit: —

Sergt. Robt. J. Simmons ……………………………………………Co. B.
Sergt. William H. Carney …………………………………………..Co. C.
Corp. Henry F. Peal ………………………………………………….Co. F.
Pvt. Geo. Wilson ………………………………………………………Co. 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. Russel…………………….missing, supposed to be killed
Capt. W. H. Simpkins……………….missing, supposed to be killed
Capt. Geo. Pope……………………………………………………wounded
Capt. E. L. Jones…………………………………………………..wounded
Capt. J. W. M. Appleton………………………………………….wounded
Capt. O. E. Smith…………………………………………………..wounded
1st Lieut. R. H. L. Jewett………………………………………….wounded
1st Lieut. Wm. H. Homans……………………………………….wounded
2d Lieut. C. E. Tucker……………………………………………..wounded
2d Lieut. J. A. Pratt…………………………………………………wounded

Enlisted Men.


I have the honor to be, very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
Colonel Commanding Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers.

Lieutenant Howard, in falling back from the fort, with a few men he had gathered, retired directly down the beach, not encountering the larger part of the regiment.  Lieut. T. L. Appleton retired first but a short distance, where, in the sand-hills, he found General Strong with some detachments which he was urging to advance.  Lieutenant Appleton moved forward again a short distance, but finding there was no concerted advance, went rearward. Sergeant Swails of Company F was with Captains Simpkins and Russel under the left bastion. They climbed the parapet, and were at once fired upon. Captain Russel fell wounded, and Simpkins asked him if he would be carried off. When he declined, and asked to lie straightened out, Simpkins directed Swails to help him do this, and while kneeling over his friend’s head, facing the enemy, was himself hit. Putting his hand to his breast, he fell across Russel, and never spoke or moved again. Swails, who relates this, says he was soon asked by Russel to change his position, that he (Swails) might not draw the Rebel fire on the wounded, and did so. Frank Myers, of Company K, whose arm was shattered, states that he stood under the uplifted arm of Colonel Shaw, while that officer was on the parapet, waving his sword, and crying, ” Forward, Fifty-fourth! ” He saw the colonel suddenly fall, and was struck himself a moment after. Thomas Burgess, of Company I, makes a similar statement.

Capt. J. W. M. Appleton, at the curtain, hearing firing at last on the right, climbed with Captain Jones and Lieutenant Emerson into the southeast bastion, and joined in the desperate fighting there. Captain Appleton was finally badly wounded, and made his way out with great difficulty, to report the situation in the bastion. Captain Jones was also severely wounded. He fell into the moat, where he remained until assisted rearward by George Remsley of Company C. Lieutenant Emerson in the bastion used the musket he had picked up before the curtain. To protect the wounded lying near he pulled out sand-bags. When a volunteer was wanted to report their situation to some general officer, he offered himself, saying, ” I will go, but if I am killed, just tell them I did not run away! ” As he was still able to fight, Captain Appleton, who was disabled, went instead. Lieutenant Homans was wounded near the fort, and thought himself mortally hurt, as he was spitting blood, but staggered along until he was met by Lieutenant Dexter, who assisted him to the rear.

Sergt. George E. Stephens of Company B, in a letter to the writer[Emilio], says,—

” I remember distinctly that when our column had charged the fort, passed the half-filled moat, and mounted to the parapet, many of our men clambered over, and some entered by the large embrasure in which one of the big guns was mounted, the firing substantially ceased there by the beach, and the Rebel musketry fire steadily grew hotter on our left. An officer of our regiment called out, ‘ Spike that gun!’ . . . Just at the very hottest moment of the struggle, a battalion or regiment charged up to the moat, halted, and did not attempt to cross it and join us, but from their position commenced to fire upon us.  I was one of the men who shouted from where I stood, ‘ Don’t fire on us! We are the Fifty-fourth.’ I have heard it was a Maine regiment. . . . Many of our men will join me in saying that in the early stages of the fight we had possession of the sea end of Battery Wagner. . . . When we reached the Gatling battery drawn up to repel a counter-attack, I remember you were the only commissioned officer present, and you placed us indiscriminately, — that is, without any regard to companies in line, — and proposed to renew the charge. The commanding officer, whom I do not know, ordered us to the flanking rifle-pits, and we then awaited the expected counter-charge the enemy did not make.”

Lieutenant Smith, severely wounded, remained on the field until the next day, when he was brought in. Lieutenant Pratt, wounded in two places, concealed himself in the marsh. There he remained many hours, until at last, braving the fire of Rebel pickets, he escaped into our lines.

First Sergeant Simmons of Company B was the finest-looking soldier in the Fifty-fourth, — a brave man and of good education. He was wounded and captured.  Taken to Charleston, his bearing impressed even his captors. After suffering amputation of the arm, he died there.

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July 18, 1863

Picture of William Harvey Carney with the battle flag

The (second) assault on Fort Wagner took place today, with 600 men of the 54th Massachusetts in the lead of three brigades. The regiment reached the top of the parapet, but was repulsed. Shaw was killed at the top of the parapet, rallying the 54th forward. Of the 600 men of the 54th, 272 were casualties: killed, wounded or captured. William Harvey Carney (at right, with the flag) received the Medal of Honor for his actions, as cited: “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”
Below is Shaw’s last letter, to his father, followed by a letter from 1st Sergeant Robert Simmons to the New York Tribune. (Simmons was wounded and taken prisoner in the assault; he died in Charleston.) Following Simmons’s letter, Emilio provides a description of the assault ( [BBR], pp.72-85). Below Emilio’s description is a popular lithograph of the assault (Kurz & Allison, 1890). Finally, an additional page of images and maps relating to Fort Wagner is provided here.

Morris Island [BCF]

July 18,1863

Dear Father,

I enclose this letter for Annie, which I didn’t intend to send you, because it is impossible to tell whether I can write again by this mail. If I do, please send this to Annie without taking it home, and tell her why it didn’t go direct.

We hear nothing but praise of the Fifty-fourth on all hands. Montgomery is under Stevenson. I wish I were. He is a good soldier. Strong I like too.

Love to Mother and the girls.

New York Tribune, December 23, 1863 [GABM]pp.33-34
R.J. Simmons, 1st Sergeant, Co. B, 54th Massachusetts Infantry,

Folly Island, South Carolina
July 18, 1863;

We are on the march to Fort Wagner, to storm it. We have just completed our successful retreat from James Island; we fought a desperate battle there Thursday morning. Three companies of us, B, H, and K, were out on picket about a good mile in advance of the regiment. We were attacked early in the morning. Our company was in the reserve, when the outposts were attacked by rebel infantry and cavalry. I was sent out by our Captain in command of a squad of men to support the left flank. The bullets fairly rained around us; when I got there the poor fellows were falling down around me, with pitiful groans. Our pickets only numbered about 250 men, attacked by about 900. It is supposed by the line of battle in the distance, that they were supported by reserve of 3,000 men. We had to fire and retreat toward our own encampment. One poor Sergeant of ours was shot down along side of me; several others were wounded near me.

God has protected me through this, my first fiery, leaden trial, and I do give Him the glory, and render my praises unto His holy name. My poor friend [Sergeant Peter] Vogelsang is shot through the lungs; his case is critical, but the doctor says he may probably live. His company suffered very much. Poor good and brave Sergeant (Joseph D.] Wilson of his company [H], after killing four rebels with his bayonet, was shot through the head by the fifth one. Poor fellow! May his noble spirit rest in peace. The General has complimented the Colonel on the galantry and bravery of his regiment.

Upon arriving at Morris Island, Colonel Shaw and Adjutant James walked toward the front to report to General Strong, whom they at last found, and who announced that Fort Wagner was to be stormed that evening. Knowing Colonel Shaw’s desire to place his men beside white troops, he said, ” You may lead the column, if you say ‘yes.’ Your men, I know, are worn out, but do as you choose.” Shaw’s face brightened, and before replying, he requested Adjutant James to return and have Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell bring up the Fifty-fourth. Adjutant James, who relates this interview, then departed on his mission. Receiving this order, the regiment marched on to General Strong’s headquarters, where a halt of five minutes was made about 6 o’clock p. M.  Noticing the worn look of the men, who had passed two days without an issue of rations, and no food since morning, when the weary march began, the general expressed his sympathy and his great desire that they might have food and stimulant. It could not be, however, for it was necessary that the regiment should move on to the position assigned.

Detaining Colonel Shaw to take supper with him,  General Strong sent the Fifty-fourth forward under the lieutenant-colonel toward the front, moving by the middle road west of the sand-hills. Gaining a point where these elevations gave place to low ground, the long blue line of the regiment advancing by the flank attracted the attention of the enemy’s gunners on James Island. Several solid shot were fired at the column, without doing any damage, but they ricochetted ahead or over the line in dangerous proximity. Realizing that the national colors and the white flag of the State especially attracted the enemy’s fire, the bearers began to roll them up on the staves. At the same moment, Captain Simpkins, commanding the color company (K) turned to observe his men. His quick eye noted the half-furled flags, and his gallant spirit took fire in a moment at the sight. Pointing to the flags with uplifted sword, he commanded in imperative tones, ” Unfurl those colors!” It was done, and the fluttering silks again waved, untrammelled, in the air.

Colonel Shaw, at about 6.30 P. M., mounted and accompanied General Strong toward the front. After proceeding a short distance, he turned back, and gave to Mr. Edward L. Pierce, a personal friend, who had been General Strong’s guest for several days, his letters and some papers, with a request to forward them to his family if anything occurred to him requiring such service. That sudden purpose accomplished, he galloped away, overtook the regiment, and informed Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell of what the Fifty-fourth was expected to do. The direction was changed to the right, advancing east toward the sea. By orders, Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell broke the column at the sixth company, and led the companies of the left wing to the rear of those of the right wing. When the sea beach was reached, the regiment halted and came to rest, awaiting the coming up of the supporting regiments.

General Gillmore had assigned to General Seymour the command of the assaulting column, charging him with its organization, formation, and all the details of the attack. His force was formed into three brigades of infantry : the first under General Strong, composed of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, Sixth Connecticut, Forty-eighth New York, Third New Hampshire, Ninth Maine, and Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania; the second, under Col. Haldimand S. Putnam, of his own regiment, —the Seventh New Hampshire, — One Hundredth New York, Sixty-second and Sixty-seventh Ohio; the third, or reserve brigade, under Brig.-Gen. Thomas G. Stevenson, of the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts, Tenth Connecticut, Ninety-seventh Pennsylvania, and Second South Carolina. Four companies of the Seventh Connecticut, and some regular and volunteer artillery-men manned and served the guns of the siege line.

Formed in column of wings, with the right resting near the sea, at a short distance in advance of the works, the men of the Fifty-fourth were ordered to lie down, their muskets loaded but not capped, and bayonets fixed. There the regiment remained for half an hour, while the formation of the storming column and reserve was perfected. To the Fifty-fourth had been given the post of honor, not by chance, but by deliberate selection. General Seymour has stated the reasons why this honorable but dangerous duty was assigned the regiment in the following words:—

“It was believed that the Fifty-fourth was in every respect as efficient as any other body of men ; and as it was one of the strongest and best officered, there seemed to be no good reason why it should not be selected for the advance. This point was decided by General Strong and myself.”

In numbers the Fifty-fourth had present but six hundred men, for besides the large camp guard and the sick left at St. Helena Island, and the losses sustained on James Island, on the 16th, a fatigue detail of eighty men under Lieut. Francis L. Higginson, did not participate in the attack.

The formation of the regiment for the assault was, as shown in the diagram below, with Companies B and E on the right of the respective wings.



Colonel Shaw, Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, Adjutant James, seven captains, and twelve lieutenants, — a total of twenty-two officers, — advanced to the assault. Surgeon Stone and Quartermaster Ritchie were present on the field. Both field officers were dismounted; the band and musicians acted as stretcher-bearers. To many a gallant man these scenes upon the sands were the last of earth; to the survivors they will be ever present. Away over the sea to the eastward the heavy sea-fog was gathering, the western sky bright with the reflected light, for the sun had set. Far away thunder mingled with the occasional boom of cannon. The gathering host all about, the silent lines stretching away to the rear, the passing of a horseman now and then carrying orders, — all was ominous of the impending onslaught. Far and indistinct in front was the now silent earthwork, seamed, scarred, and ploughed with shot, its flag still waving in defiance.

Among the dark soldiers who were to lead veteran regiments which were equal in drill and discipline to any in the country, there was a lack of their usual light-heartedness, for they realized, partially at least, the dangers they were to encounter. But there was little nervousness and no depression observable. It took but a touch to bring out their irrepressible spirit and humor in the old way. When a cannon-shot from the enemy came toward the line and passed over, a man or two moved nervously, calling out a sharp reproof from Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, whom the men still spoke of as “the major.” Thereupon one soldier quietly remarked to his comrades, ” I guess the major forgets what kind of balls them is! ” Another added, thinking of the foe, ” I guess they kind of ’spec’s we ‘re coming!”

Naturally the officers’ thoughts were largely regarding their men. Soon they would know whether the lessons they had taught of soldierly duty would bear good fruit. Would they have cause for exultation or be compelled to sheathe their swords, rather than lead cowards? Unknown to them, the whole question of employing three hundred thousand colored soldiers hung in the balance. But few, however, doubted the result. Wherever a white officer led that night, even to the gun-muzzles and bayonet-points, there, by his side, were black men as brave and steadfast as himself.

At last the formation of the column was nearly perfected. The Sixth Connecticut had taken position in column of companies just in rear of the Fifty-fourth. About this time, Colonel Shaw walked back to Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, and said, ” I shall go in advance with the National flag. You will keep the State flag with you; it will give the men something to rally round. We shall take the fort or die there! Good-by!”

Presently, General Strong, mounted upon a spirited gray horse, in full uniform, with a yellow handkerchief bound around his neck, rode in front of the Fifty-fourth, accompanied by two aids and two orderlies. He addressed the men,’ and his words, as given by an officer of the regiment, were: “Boys, I am a Massachusetts man, and I know you will fight for the honor of the State. I am sorry you must go into the fight tired and hungry, but the men in the fort are tired too. There are but three hundred behind those walls, and they have been fighting all day. Don’t fire a musket on the way up, but go in and bayonet them at their guns.” Calling out the color-bearer, he said, ” If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on ? ” Colonel Shaw, standing near, took a cigar from between his lips, and said quietly, ” I will.” The men loudly responded to Colonel Shaw’s pledge, while General Strong rode away to give the signal for advancing.

Colonel Shaw calmly walked up and down the line of his regiment. He was clad in a close-fitting staff-officer’s jacket, with a silver eagle denoting his rank on each shoulder. His trousers were light blue; a fine narrow silk sash was wound round his waist beneath the jacket. Upon his head was a high felt army hat with cord. Depending from his sword-belt was a field-officer’s sword of English manufacture, with the initials of his name worked into the ornamentation of the guard. On his hand was an antique gem set in a ring. In his pocket was a gold watch, marked with his name, attached to a gold chain. Although he had given certain papers and letters to his friend, Mr. Pierce, he retained his pocket-book, which doubtless contained papers which would establish his identity. His manner, generally reserved before his men, seemed to unbend to them, for he spoke as he had never done before. He said, ” Now I want you to prove yourselves men,” and reminded them that the eyes of thousands would look upon the night’s work. His bearing was composed and graceful; his cheek had somewhat paled; and the slight twitching of the corners of his mouth plainly showed that the whole cost was counted, and his expressed determination to take the fort or die was to be carried out.

Meanwhile the twilight deepened, as the minutes, drawn put by waiting, passed, before the signal was given. Officers had silently grasped one another’s hands, brought their revolvers round to the front, and tightened their sword-belts. The men whispered last injunctions to comrades, and listened for the word of command. The preparations usual in an assault were not made. There was no provision for cutting away obstructions, filling the ditch, or spiking the guns. No special instructions were given the stormers; no line of skirmishers or covering party was thrown out; no engineers or guides accompanied the column; no artillery-men to serve captured guns; no plan of the work was shown company officers. It was understood that the fort would be assaulted with the bayonet, and that the Fifty-fourth would be closely supported.

While on the sands a few cannon-shots had reached the regiment, one passing between the wings, another over to the right. When the inaction had become almost unendurable, the signal to advance came. Colonel Shaw walked along the front to the centre, and giving the command, ” Attention!” the men sprang to their feet. Then came the admonition, “Move in quick time until within a hundred yards of the fort; then double quick, and charge!” A slight pause, followed by the sharp command, ” Forward!” and the Fifty-fourth advanced to the storming.

There had been a partial resumption of the bombardment during the formation, but now only an occasional shot was heard. The enemy in Wagner had seen the preparations, knew what was coming, and were awaiting the blow. With Colonel Shaw leading, sword in hand, the long advance over three quarters of a mile of sand had begun, with wings closed up and company officers admonishing their men to preserve the alignment. Guns from Sumter, Sullivan’s Island, and James Island, began to play upon the regiment. It was about 7.45 p. M., with darkness coming on rapidly, when the Fifty-fourth moved. With barely room for the formation from the first, the narrowing way between the sand hillocks and the sea soon caused a strong pressure to the right, so that Captains Willard and Emilio on the right of the right companies of their wings were with some of their men forced to march in water up to their knees, at each incoming of the sea. Moving at quick time, and preserving its formation as well as the difficult ground and narrowing way permitted, the Fifty-fourth was approaching the defile made by the easterly sweep of the marsh. Darkness was rapidly com-ing on, and each moment became deeper. Soon men on the flanks were compelled to fall behind, for want of room to continue in line. The centre only had a free path, and with eyes strained upon the colonel and the flag, they pressed on toward the work, now only two hundred yards away.

At that moment Wagner became a mound of fire, from which poured a stream of shot and shell. Just a brief lull, and the deafening explosions of cannon were renewed, mingled with the crash and rattle of musketry. A sheet of flame, followed by a running fire, like electric sparks, swept along the parapet, as the Fifty-first North Carolina gave a direct, and the Charleston Battalion a left-oblique, fire on the Fifty-fourth. Their Thirty-first North Carolina had lost heart, and failed to take position in the southeast bastion, — fortunately, too, for had its musketry fire been added to that delivered, it is doubtful whether any Federal troops could have passed the defile. When this tempest of war came, before which men fell in numbers on every side, the only response the Fifty-fourth made to the deadly challenge was to change step to the double-quick, that it might the sooner close with the foe. There had been no stop, pause, or check at any period of the advance, nor was there now. As the swifter pace was taken, and officers sprang to the fore with waving swords barely seen in the darkness, the men closed the gaps, and with set jaws, panting breath, and bowed heads, charged on.

Wagner’s wall, momentarily lit up by cannon-flashes, was still the goal toward which the survivors rushed in sadly diminished numbers. It was now dark, the gloom made more intense by the blinding explosions in the front. This terrible fire which the regiment had just faced, probably caused the greatest number of casualties sustained by the Fifty-fourth in the assault; for nearer the work the men were somewhat sheltered by the high parapet. Every flash showed the ground dotted with men of the regiment, killed or wounded. Great holes, made by the huge shells of the navy or the land batteries, were pitfalls into which the men stumbled or fell.

Colonel Shaw led the regiment to the left toward the curtain of the work, thus passing the southeast bastion, and leaving it to the right hand. From that salient no musketry fire came; and some Fifty-fourth men first entered it, not following the main body by reason of the darkness. As the survivors drew near the work, they encountered the flanking fire delivered from guns in the southwest salient, and the howitzers outside the fort, which swept the trench, where further severe losses were sustained. Nothing but the ditch now separated the stormers and the foe. Down into this they went, through the two or three feet of water therein, and mounted the slope beyond in the teeth of the enemy, some of whom, standing on the crest, fired down on them with depressed pieces. Both flags were planted on the parapet, the national flag carried there and gallantly maintained by the brave Sergt. William H. Carney of Company C.

In the pathway from the defile to the fort many brave men had fallen. Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell was severely wounded in the groin, Captain Willard in the leg, Adjutant James in the ankle and side, Lieutenant Homans in the shoulder. Lieutenants Smith and Pratt were also wounded. Colonel Shaw had led his regiment from first to last. Gaining the rampart, he stood there for a moment with uplifted sword, shouting, “Forward, Fifty-fourth !” and then fell dead, shot through the heart, besides other wounds.

Not a shot had been fired by the regiment up to this time. As the crest was gained, the crack of revolver-shots was heard, for the officers fired into the surging mass of upturned faces confronting them, lit up redly but a moment by the powder-flashes. Musket-butts and bayonets were freely used on the parapet, where the stormers were gallantly met. The garrison fought with muskets, handspikes, and gun-rammers, the officers striking with their swords, so close were the combatants. Numbers, however, soon told against the Fifty-fourth, for it was tens against hundreds. Outlined against the sky, they were a fair mark for the foe. Men fell every moment during the brief struggle. Some of the wounded crawled down the slope to shelter; others fell headlong into the ditch below.

It was seen from the volume of musketry fire, even before the walls were gained, that the garrison was stronger than had been supposed, and brave in defending the work. The first rush had failed, for those of the Fifty-fourth who reached the parapet were too few in numbers to overcome the garrison, and the supports were not at hand to take full advantage of their first fierce attack. Repulsed from the crest after the short hand-to-hand struggle, the assailants fell back upon the exterior slope of the rampart. There the men were encouraged to remain by their officers, for by sweeping the top of the parapet with musketry, and firing at those trying to serve the guns, they would greatly aid an advancing force. For a time this was done, but at the cost of more lives. The enemy’s fire became more effective as the numbers of the Fifty-fourth diminished. Hand grenades or lighted shells were rolled down the slope, or thrown over into the ditch.

All this time the remaining officers and men of the Fifty-fourth were firing at the hostile figures about the guns, or that they saw spring upon the parapet, fire, and jump away. One brave fellow, with his broken arm lying across his breast, was piling cartridges upon it for Lieutenant Emerson, who, like other officers, was using a musket he had picked up. Another soldier, tired of the enforced combat, climbed the slope to his fate; for in a moment his dead body rolled down again. A particularly severe fire came from the southwest bastion. There a Confederate was observed, who, stripped to the waist, with daring exposure for some time dealt out fatal shots; but at last three eager marksmen fired together, and he fell back into the fort, to appear no more. Capt. J. W. M. Appleton distinguished himself before the curtain. He crawled into an embrasure, and with his pistol prevented the artillery-men from serving the gun. Private George Wilson of Company A had been shot through both shoulders, but refused to go back until he had his captain’s permission. While occupied with this faithful soldier, who came to him as he lay in the embrasure, Captain Appleton’s attention was distracted, and the gun was fired.

In the fighting upon the slopes of Wagner, Captains Russel and Simpkins were killed or mortally wounded. Captain Pope there received a severe wound in the shoulder.

All these events had taken place in a short period of time. The charge of the Fifty-fourth had been made and repulsed before the arrival of any other troops. Those who had clung to the bloody slopes or were lying in the ditch, hearing fighting going on at their right, realized at last that the expected succor would not reach them where they were. To retire through the enveloping fire was as dangerous and deadly as to advance. Some that night preferred capture to the attempt at escaping; but the larger portion managed to fall back, singly or in squads, beyond the musketry fire of the garrison.

Captain Emilio, the junior of that rank, succeeded to the command of the Fifty-fourth on the field by casualties. After retiring from Wagner to a point where men were encountered singly or in small squads, he determined to rally as many as possible. With the assistance of Lieutenants Grace and Dexter, a large portion of the Fifty-fourth survivors were collected and formed in line, together with a considerable number of white soldiers of various regiments. While thus engaged, the national flag of the Fifty-fourth was brought to Captain Emilio; but as it was useless as a rallying-point in the darkness, it was sent to the rear for safety. Sergeant Carney had bravely brought this flag from Wagner’s parapet, at the cost of two grievous wounds. The State color was torn from the staff, the silk was found by the enemy in the moat, while the staff remained with us.

Finding a line of rifle trench unoccupied and no indication that dispositions were being made for holding it, believing that the enemy would attempt a sortie, which was indeed contemplated but not attempted, Captain Emilio there stationed his men, disposed to defend the line. Other men were collected as they appeared. Lieu-tenant Tucker, slightly wounded, who was among the last to leave the sand hills near the fort, joined this force.

Desultory firing was still going on, and after a time, being informed that some troops were in the open ground, the force, numbering some two hundred, was formed by its commander, and advanced from the rifle trench. It is believed this was the only organized body of rallied men ready and able to support Stevenson’s brigade, which alone was prepared after the repulse of the others to resist attack. Presently the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts was encountered; but upon reporting, it was found that support was not required. Marching back to the still deserted trench, that line was again occupied. By midnight firing entirely ceased. About 1 A. M., on the 19th, a mounted officer rode up, inquired what force held the trench, and asked for the commanding officer. Captain Emilio responded, and recognized General Stevenson, who thanked him for the support given the reserve brigade, and his dispositions for holding the line. He was also informed that a regiment would be sent to relieve his men, and shortly after, the Tenth Connecticut arrived for that purpose. When this was done, the white soldiers were formed into detachments by regiments, and sent to find their colors.

The Fifty-fourth men were then marched to the rear, and after proceeding a short distance down the beach, encountered Lieutenants Jewett, Emerson, and Appleton, with some of the men. There the Fifty-fourth bivouacked for the night, under the shelter of the sand-bluffs.

Lithograph of the Storming of Form Wagner

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July 17, 1863

Emilio describes the immediate overnight march from James Island to Morris Island and the preparations for the assault on the 18th ( [BBR] pp.63-72):

General Terry was ordered to evacuate James Island that night. At about five o’clock P. M., the Fifty-fourth was relieved by the Fifty-second Pennsylvania, and returned to the bivouac. While awaiting the marching, orders, several officers and men of the Tenth Connecticut came to express their appreciation of the service rendered by the Fifty-fourth companies attacked in the morning, by which they were enabled to effect a safe retreat. Afterward, upon Morris Island the colonel of that regiment made similar expressions.

… the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was given the advance, moving at 9.30 o’clock that night, followed by the other regiments, the route being pointed out by guides from the engineers, who accompanied the head of column.

All stores, ammunition, and horses of the Fifty-fourth were put on board the steamer “Boston” by Quartermaster Ritchie, who, with his men, worked all night in the mud and rain. Surgeon Lincoln R. Stone of the Fifty-fourth and Surgeon Samuel A. Green of the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts saw that all the wounded were properly cared for, and also embarked.

It was a stormy night, with frequent flashes of lightning, and pouring rain. Colonel Davis, at the proper time, saw to the withdrawal of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania, which held the front lines. So silently was the operation accomplished that the enemy did not discover our evacuation until daylight. When the Fifty-sixth New York, the rear-guard, had crossed the bridge leading from James Island, at 1A. M., on the 17th, it was effectually destroyed, thus rendering pursuit difficult.

That night’s march was a memorable one, for the difficulties of the way were exceptional, and only to be encountered upon the Sea Islands. After passing the bridge, the road led along narrow causeways and paths only wide enough for two men to pass abreast; over swamps, and streams bridged for long distances by structures of frail piling, supporting one or two planks with no hand-rail. A driving rain poured down nearly the whole time, and the darkness was intense. Blinding flashes of lightning momentarily illumined the way, then fading but to render the blackness deeper.

Throughout most of the march the men were obliged to move in single file, groping their way and grasping their leader as they progressed, that they might not separate or go astray. Along the foot-bridges the planks became slippery with mire from muddy feet, rendering the footing insecure, and occasioning frequent falls, which delayed progress. Through the woods, wet branches overhanging the path, displaced by the leaders, swept back with bitter force into the faces of those following. Great clods of clay gathered on the feet of the men.

Two hours were consumed in passing over the dikes and foot-bridges alone. In distance the route was but a few miles, yet it was daybreak when the leading companies reached firmer ground. Then the men flung themselves on the wet ground, and in a moment were in deep sleep, while the column closed up. Reunited solidly again, the march was resumed, and Cole’s Island soon reached. The regiments following the Fifty-fourth had the benefit of daylight most of the way.

Footsore, weary, hungry, and thirsty, the regiment was halted near the beach opposite Folly Island about 5 A. M. , on the 17th. Sleep was had until the burning sun awakened the greater number. Regiments had been arriving and departing all the morning. Rations were not procurable, and they were fortunate who could find a few crumbs or morsels of meat in their haversacks. Even water was hard to obtain, for crowds of soldiers collected about the few sources of supply. By noon the heat and glare from the white sand were almost intolerable.

In the evening a moist cool breeze came; and at eight o’clock the regiment moved up the shore to a creek in readiness to embark on the ” General Hunter,” lying in the stream. It was found that the only means of boarding the steamer was by a leaky long-boat which would hold about thirty men. Definite orders came to report the regiment to General Strong at Morris Island without delay, and at 10 p. M. the embarkation began. By the light of a single lantern the men were stowed in the boat. Rain was pouring down in torrents, for a thunderstorm was raging. Throughout that interminable night the long-boat was kept plying from shore to vessel and back, while those on land stood or crouched about in dripping clothes, awaiting their turn for ferriage to the steamer, whose dim light showed feebly in the gloom. The boat journey was made with difficulty, for the current was strong, and the crowded soldiers obstructed the rowers in their task. It was an all night’s work. Colonel Shaw saw personally to the embarkation; and as daylight was breaking he stepped in with the last boat-load, and himself guided the craft to the “Hunter.” Thus with rare self-sacrifice and fine example, he shared the exposure of every man, when the comfortable cabin of the steamer was at his disposal from the evening before.

On the “General Hunter” the officers procured breakfast; but the men were still without rations. Refreshed, the officers were all together for the last time socially; before another day three were dead, and three wounded who never returned. Captain Simpkins, whose manly appearance and clear-cut features were so pleasing to look upon, was, as always, quiet and dignified; Captain Russel was voluble and active as ever, despite all fatigue. Neither appeared to have any premonition of their fate. It was different with Colonel Shaw, who again expressed to Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell his apprehension of speedy death.

Running up Folly River, the steamer arrived at Pawnee Landing, where, at 9 A. M. [on the 18th], the Fifty-fourth disembarked. Crossing the island through woods, the camps of several regiments were passed, from which soldiers ran out, shouting, ” Well done! we heard your guns! ” Others cried, “Hurrah, boys! you saved the Tenth Connecticut!” Leaving the timber, the Fifty-fourth came to the sea beach, where marching was easier. Stretching away to the horizon, on the right, was the Atlantic; to the left, sand hillocks, with pine woods farther inland. Occasional squalls of rain came, bringing rubber blankets and coats into use. At one point on the beach, a box of water-soaked hard bread was discovered, and the contents speedily divided among the hungry men. Firing at the front had been heard from early morning, which toward noon was observed to have risen into a heavy cannonade. After a march of some six miles, we arrived at Lighthouse Inlet and rested, awaiting transportation. Tuneful voices about the colors started the song, “When this Cruel War is Over,” and the pathetic words of the chorus were taken up by others. It was the last song of many; but few then thought it a requiem. By ascending the sand-hills, we could see the distant vessels engaging Wagner. When all was prepared, the Fifty-fourth boarded a small steamer, landed on Morris Island, about 5 P. M., and remained near the shore for further orders.

General Gillmore, on the 13th, began constructing four batteries, mounting forty-two guns and mortars, to damage the slopes and guns of Wagner, which were completed under the enemy’s fire, and in spite of a sortie at night, on the 14th. He expected to open with them on the 16th; but heavy rains so delayed progress that all was not prepared until the 18th. Beyond this siege line, which was 1,350 yards south of Wagner, stretched a narrow strip of land between the sea and Vincent’s Creek, with its marshes. At low tide, the beach sand afforded a good pathway to the enemy’s position; but at high tide, it was through deep, loose sand, and over low sand hillocks. This stretch of sand was unobstructed, until at a point two hundred yards in front of Wagner, the enemy had made a line of rifle trenches. Some fifty yards nearer Wagner, an easterly bend of the marsh extended to within twenty-five yards of the sea at high tide, forming a defile, through which an assaulting column must pass.

Nearly covered by this sweep of the marsh, and commanding it as well as the stretch of sand beyond to the Federal line, was “Battery Wagner,” so named by the Confederates, in memory of Lieut.-Col. Thomas M. Wagner, First South Carolina Artillery, killed at Fort Sumter. This field work was constructed of quartz sand, with turf and palmetto log revetment, and occupied the whole width of the island there, — some six hundred and thirty feet. Its southern and principal front was double-bastioned. Next the sea was a heavy traverse and curtain covering a sally-port. Then came the southeast bastion, prolonged westerly by a curtain connected with the southwest bastion. At the western end was another sally-port. An infantry parapet closed the rear or north face. It had large bombproofs, magazines, and heavy traverses.

Wagner’s armament was … Wagner’s garrison, on the 18th, consisted of … a total force of seventeen hundred men. Such was the position, armament, and garrison of the strongest single earthwork known in the history of warfare.

About 10 A. M., on the 18th, five wooden gunboats joined the land batteries in shelling Wagner, lying out of the enemy’s range. At about 12.30 P. M., five monitors and the ” New Ironsides ” opened, and the land batteries increased their fire. A deluge of shot was now poured into the work, driving the main portion of its garrison into the bombproofs, and throwing showers of sand from the slopes of Wagner into the air but to fall back in place again. The enemy’s flag was twice shot away, and, until replaced, a battle-flag was planted with great gallantry by daring men. From Gregg, Sumter, and the James Island and Sullivan’s Island batteries, the enemy returned the iron compliments; while for a time Wagner’s cannoneers ran out at intervals, and served a part of the guns, at great risk.

A fresh breeze blew that day; at times the sky was clear; the atmosphere, lightened by recent rains, resounded with the thunders of an almost incessant cannonade. Smoke-clouds hung over the naval vessels, our batteries, and those of the enemy. During this terrible bombardment, the two infantry regiments and the artillery companies, except gun detachments, kept in the bombproofs. But the Charleston Battalion lay all day under the parapets of Wagner, — a terrible ordeal, which was borne without demoralization. In spite of the tremendous fire, the enemy’s loss was only eight men killed and twenty wounded, before the assault.

General Taliaferro foresaw that this bombardment was preliminary to an assault, and had instructed his force to take certain assigned positions when the proper time came….The tide turned to flow at 4 p. M., and about the same time firing from Wagner ceased, and not a man was to be seen there. During the afternoon the troops were moving from their camps toward the front. Late in the day the belief was general that the enemy had been driven from his shelter, and the armament of Wagner rendered harmless. General Gillmore, after calling his chief officers together for conference, decided to attack that evening, and the admiral was so notified. Firing from land and sea was still kept up with decreased rapidity, while the troops were preparing.

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July 16, 1863

The Confederates attacked on James Island today, and the men of the 54th distinguished themselves by their steadfastness. Here is Emilio’s description of the battle ( [BBR], pp.57-63):

In the gray of early dawn of July 16, the troops in bivouac on James Island were awakened by dropping shots, and then heavy firing on the picket line to the right. Clambering to the top of a pile of cracker-boxes, an officer of the Fifty-fourth, looking in the direction of the firing, saw the flashes of musketry along the outposts. In a few moments came the sharp metallic explosions from field-guns to the left by the river-bank. Wilkie James, the adjutant, rode in post-haste along the line, with cheery voice but unusually excited manner, ordering company commanders to form. “Fall in! fall in!” resounded on all sides, while drums of the several regiments were beating the long-roll. But a few moments sufficed for the Fifty-fourth to form, when Colonel Shaw marched it to the right and some little distance to the rear, where it halted, faced to the front, and stood in line of battle at right angles to the Secessionville road. Rapid work was going on at the outposts. Before dawn the pickets of the Fifty-fourth had heard hoarse commands and the sound of marching men coming from the bank of darkness before them. Soon a line of men in open order came sweeping toward them from the gloom into the nearer and clearer light.

Colquitt, with six companies of the Eutaw Regiment (Twenty-fifth South Carolina), skirmishing before his infantry column, crossing Rivers’s causeway, was rapidly advancing on the black pickets.

Simpkins’s right was the first point of contact; and the men, thus suddenly attacked by a heavy force, discharged their pieces, and sullenly contested the way, firing as they went, over rough and difficult ground, which obstructed the enemy’s advance as well as their own retirement. Soon the enemy gained the road at a point in rear of Russel’s right. Some of the men there, hardly aware of their extremity, were still holding their positions against those of the enemy who appeared in the immediate front. It seemed to Sergt. Peter Vogelsang of Company H, who had his post at a palmetto-tree, that in a moment one hundred Rebels were swarming about him. He led his comrades to join men on his left, where they advanced, firing. With effect too, for they came to the body of a dead Rebel, from whom Vogelsang took a musket.

Russel’s right posts, thus cut off, were followed by a company of the Nineteenth Georgia, and after the desultory fighting were driven, to escape capture, into the creek on the right of the line, where some were drowned. Those most courageous refused to fall back, and were killed or taken as prisoners. Sergt. James D. Wilson of Company H was one of the former. He was an expert in the use of the musket, having been employed with the famous Ellsworth Zouaves of Chicago. Many times he had declared to his comrades that he would never retreat or surrender to the enemy. On that morning, when attacked, he called to his men to stand fast. Assailed by  five men, he is said to have disabled three of them. Some cavalrymen coming up, he charged them with a shout as they circled about him, keeping them all at bay for a time with the bayonet of his discharged musket, until the brave fellow sank in death with three mortal besides other wounds.

Captain Russel, finding that the enemy had turned his flank before he could face back, had to retire with such men as were not cut off, at double-quick, finding the foe about the reserve house when he reached it. A mounted officer charged up to Russel, and cut twice at his head with his sword. Preston Williams of Company H caught the second sweep upon his bayonet and shot the Confederate through the neck, thus saving his captain’s life. From the reserve house Russel and his men retired, fight-ing as they could.

Captain Simpkins’s right, as has been told, first bore the force of the attack. By strenuous efforts and great personal exposure that cool and gallant officer collected some men in line. With them he contested the way back step by step, halting now and then to face about and fire, thus gaining time, the loss of which thwarted the enemy’s plan. Of his men, Corp. Henry A. Field of Company K especially distinguished himself. Captain Willard at the reserve house at once sent back word, by a mounted orderly, of the situation. To the support of his right he sent Lieutenant Appleton with some men, and to the left First Sergeant Simmons of Company B with a small force, and then looked for aid from our main body. He endeavored to form a line of skirmishers, when the men began coming back from the front, but with little success. The men could not be kept in view because of the underbrush nearly as high as a man. As the expected succor did not come, the officers and the remaining men made their way back to the division.

It will be remembered that with the first musket-shots came the sound of field-guns from the Stono. The enemy’s four Napoleons had galloped into battery within four hundred yards of the gunboats, and fired some ten rounds before they were replied to; their shots crashed through the “Pawnee ” again and again, with some loss. It was impossible for the gunboats to turn in the narrow stream, and their guns did not bear properly. To drop down was dangerous, but it was done; when out of close range, the “Marblehead,” “Pawnee,” and “Huron ” soon drove their tormentors away from the river-bank.

To capture the Tenth Connecticut, the enemy, after dealing with the Fifty-fourth, sent a portion of his force; but the resistance made by Captain Simpkins had allowed time for the Tenth Connecticut to abandon its dangerous position at the double-quick. None too soon, however, for five minutes’ delay would have been fatal. A correspondent of ” The Reflector,” writing from Morris Island a few days later, said: —

“The boys of the Tenth Connecticut could not help loving the men who saved them from destruction. I have been deeply affected at hearing this feeling expressed by officers and men of the Connecticut regiment; and probably a thousand homes from Windham to Fairfield have in letters been told the story how the dark-skinned heroes fought the good fight and covered with their own brave hearts the retreat of brothers, sons, and fathers of Connecticut.”

The valuable time gained by the resistance of the Fifty-fourth pickets had also permitted the formation of Terry’s division in line of battle. Hardly had the Fifty-fourth taken its position before men from the front came straggling in, all bearing evidence of struggles with bush and brier, some of the wounded limping along unassisted, others helped by comrades. One poor fellow, with his right arm shattered, still carried his musket in his left hand.

Captain Russel appeared in sight, assisting a sergeant, badly wounded. Bringing up the rear came Captains Willard and Simpkins, the latter with his trousers and rubber coat pierced with bullets. As the pickets and their officers reached the regiment, they took their places in line.

A few minutes after these events, the enemy, having advanced to a position within about six hundred yards of the Federal line, opened fire with guns of the Marion Artillery, making good line shots, but fortunately too high.

It was a supreme moment for the Fifty-fourth, then under fire as a regiment for the first time. The sight of wounded comrades had been a trial; and the screaming shot and shell flying overhead, cutting the branches of trees to the right, had a deadly sound. But the dark line stood stanch, holding the front at the most vital point. Not a man was out of place, as the officers could see while they stood in rear of the lines, observing their men.

In reply to the enemy’s guns the Connecticut battery fired percussion-shells, and for some time this artillery duel continued. To those who were anticipating an attack by infantry, and looking for the support of the gunboats, their silence was ominous. Every ear was strained to catch the welcome sound, and at last it came in great booms from Parrott guns. Very opportunely, too, on the night before, the armed transports “John Adams” and “Mayflower” had run up the creek on our right flank, and their guns were fired twelve or fifteen times with good effect before the enemy retired.

The expected attack on Terry’s line by infantry did not take place, for after about an hour the enemy retired in some confusion. By General Terry’s order, the Fifty-fourth was at once directed to reoccupy the old picket line. Captain Jones with two companies advanced, skirmishing; and the main body followed, encountering arms and equipments of the enemy strewn over a broad trail. At the reserve house the regiment halted in support of a strong picket line thrown out. Parties were sent to scour the ground, finding several wounded men lying in the brush or in the marsh across the creek. They also brought in the body of a Confederate, almost a child, with soft skin and long fair hair, red with his own blood. This youthful victim of the fight was tenderly buried soon after.

Some of our dead at first appeared to be mutilated; but closer inspection revealed the fact that the fiddler-crabs, and not the enemy, did the work. It was told by some of those who lay concealed, that where Confederate officers were, the colored soldiers had been protected; but that in other cases short shrift was given, and three men had been shot and others bayonetted.

Colonel Shaw had despatched Adjutant James to report that the old line was re-established. He returned with the following message from General Terry:

“Tell your colonel that I am exceedingly pleased with the conduct of your regiment. They have done all they could do.”

During the afternoon a mail was received. After reading their letters Colonel Shaw and Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell conversed. The colonel asked the major if he believed in presentiments, and added that he felt he would be killed in the first action. Asked to try to shake off the feeling, he quietly said, “I will try.”

General Beauregard reported his loss as three killed, twelve wounded, and three missing, which is believed to be an under-estimate. We found two dead Confederates, and captured six prisoners representing four regiments. The Adjutant-General of Massachusetts gives the Fifty-fourth loss as fourteen killed, eighteen wounded, and thirteen missing. Outside our regiment the casualties were very light.

General Terry in his official report says : —

“I desire to express my obligations to Captain Balch, United States Navy, commanding the naval forces in the river, for the very great assistance rendered to me, and to report to the commanding general the good services of Captain Rockwell and his battery, and the steadiness and soldierly conduct of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment who were on duty at the outposts on the right and met the brunt of attack.”

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July 15, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his wife Annie; it will turn out to be his last to her:

James’ Island, S.C. [BCF]
July 15,1863

My Dearest Annie,

Your letters of June 3d, 14th, and 28th, and July 3d, 4th, and 5th, came to-day, and I felt horridly ashamed of myself for having blamed you for not taking care to post your letters. Do excuse it. It will show you how much I value your dear letters.

You don’t know what a fortunate day this has been for me and for us all, excepting some poor fellows who were killed and wounded. We have at last fought alongside of white troops. Two hundred of my men on picket this morning were attacked by five regiments of infantry, some cavalry, and a battery of artillery. The Tenth Connecticut (of Stevenson’s Brigade) were on their left, and say they should have had a bad time, if the Fifty-fourth men had not stood so well. The whole Division was under arms in fifteen minutes, and after coming up close in front of us, the enemy, finding us so strong, fell back. The other regiments lost in all, three men wounded. We lost seven killed, twenty-one wounded, six missing, supposed killed, and nine unaccounted for. These last are probably killed or captured.  All these belonged to the four companies which were on picket. The main body, excepting artillery, was not engaged at all.

All this is very gratifying to us personally, and a fine thing for the coloured troops. It is the first time they have been associated with white soldiers, this side of the Mississippi. To make my happiness and satisfaction complete, the afternoon brought your and Mother’s letters… .

I have just come in from the front with my regiment, where we were sent as soon as the Rebels retired. This shows that the events of the morning did not destroy the General’s confidence in us.

We found some of our wounded, who say the Rebels treated them kindly. Other men report that some prisoners were shot. It is very common for frightened men to tell fearful stories of what they have seen; the first report comes from the wounded men themselves; the second from the stragglers. . . .

Good bye, darling, for the night. I know this letter will give you pleasure, because what we have done to-day wipes out the remembrance of the Darien affair, which you could not but grieve over, though we were innocent participators. You will have some satisfaction in telling it to your father, your Uncle Charles, and Aunt Fanny, to all of whom please give my sincere regards. Whenever you see your grandfather and grandmother, do not forget to give them my respects. To our Mamma, and Clem. I needn’t say I send my warmest love. I got my horse, India-rubber tube, and some clean clothes to-day.

Cole’s Island (opposite Folly Island) [RGS]
July 17th, 4 P.M.

James Island was evacuated last night by our forces. My regiment started first, at 91/2 P.M. Not a thing was moved until after dark, and the Rebels must have been astonished this morning. Terry went there originally only to create a diversion from Morris Island, and it was useless to stay and risk being driven off, after Morris was taken. It thundered and lightened, and rained hard all night, and it took us from 10 P.M. to 5 A.M. to come four miles. Most of the way we had to march in single file along the narrow paths through the swamps. For nearly half a mile we had to pass over a bridge of one, and in some places, two planks wide, without a railing, and slippery with rain— mud and water below several feet deep—and then over a narrow dike so slippery as to make it almost impossible to keep one’s feet. It took my regiment alone nearly two hours to pass the bridge and dike. By the time we got over, it was nearly daylight, and the Brigade behind us had a pretty easy time. I never had such an extraordinary walk.

We are now lying on the beach opposite the southern point of Folly Island, and have been here since five this morning. When they can get boats, they will set us across, I suppose.

There is hardly any water to be got here, and the sun and sand arc dazzling and roasting us. I shouldn’t like you to see me as I am now; I haven’t washed my face since day before yesterday. My conscience is perfectly easy about it, though, for it was an impossibility, and every one is in the same condition. Open air dirt, i.e. mud, & is not like the indoor article.

… I have had nothing but crackers and coffee these two days. It seems like old times in the army of the Potomac.

Good bye again, darling Annie.


July 18th. Morris Island—We are in General Strong’s Brigade, and have left Montgomery, I hope for good. We came up here last night, and were out again all night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being very heavily bombarded. We arc not far from it.

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July 13, 1863

A (fragment) of a letter from Shaw to his wife Annie:

July 13,1863 [BCF]

My Dearest Annie,

I sent the family letter to Father, to this date, and you will get it very soon after this. You will see from it what we have been doing lately.

I should have been Major of the Second now if I had remained there, and lived through the battles. As regards my own pleasure, I had rather have that place than any other in the army. It would have been fine to go home, a field-officer in that regiment. Poor fellows, how they have been slaughtered! Our mail came to-night, but was taken away by mistake.

My warmest love to Mamma and Clem. . . . That country place of ours is often before my eyes in the dim future. .. .

[fragment printed]

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July 9, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his wife Annie, begun today, extended on the 11th, and completed on the 13:

Stono River, S.C. [RGS][BCF]
July 9,1863 (James’ Island)

My Darling Annie,

Just after closing my last, on the envelope of which I said we were ordered away from St. Helena’s Island, we embarked on board the “Chasseur.” We sailed at about 3 P.M., without anything but India-rubber blankets and a little hardbread, and arrived off Stono Inlet, near Charleston Harbour, at about one o’clock this morning. We lay off the bar until i P.M. waiting for the flood-tide. The sea was running very high all the time, so that the men were very sea-sick, and we had a decidedly uncomfortable day. In the night it rained hard, and we all got a good soaking, as it was too hot to stay below. At about 2 P.M. we came to an anchor at the southern point of Folly Island, and Colonel Montgomery reported to General Terry. We then steamed up the Stono River, in company with the Monitor “Nantucket,” the gunboat “Pawnee,” two other little gunboats, and seven transports containing General Terry’s Division.

We now lie off the place where General Hunter’s troops landed last year in the attack on Charleston. The sail up the river was beautiful, the sun just sinking as we reached our anchorage.

July 10th—Still on board our transport. Last night, two regiments landed, but encountered nothing but a few outposts. General Terry’s part is only to make a feint, the real attack being on Morris Island from Folly. That began this morning, and the news from there is, that General Gillmore has got all his troops on Morris Island, and has possession of nearly half of it.

This afternoon I went inland about two miles, and from a housetop saw Fort Sumter, our Monitors, and the spires of Charleston. Just now the news of the fall of Vicksburg, and of Lee’s defeat has reached us. What an excitement there must be through the North! For my part, though, I do not believe the end is coming yet, and the next mail will probably tell us that Lee has got away with a good part of his army; there is too much danger of our government making a compromise, for peace to be entirely welcome now. I am very glad that McClellan was not restored to command, for such vacillation in the government would have been too contemptible. Every one can rejoice at Meade’s success, as he is as yet identified with no party. I hope the prisoners will not be paroled, for they will be in the army again in a month, if they are.

I found a classmate, to-day, on board the “Nantucket,” surgeon there, and George Lawrence, of the class above me, paymaster on board the “Pawnee.”They are both very nice fellows; particularly so, because they have invited me to dinner; having had hardly anything but hard-bread and salt-junk since we left camp, a good dinner is to be desired.

July 11th—This morning I got a paper from General Terry of July 7th, giving an incomplete list of the killed and wounded in the Second and Twentieth Massachusetts Regiments at Gettysburg. Poor Mudge is dead, I see. It will be a terrible blow to his family. You know he was my captain when we first went out. But every one must expect to lose their friends and relatives, and consider themselves as particularly favoured by Providence if they do not. General Gillmore made an attack on Ft. Wagner this morning, and was repulsed. He will probably begin a regular siege now. Fort Wagner is half-way down Morris Island.

Saturday evening — We landed at noon to-day, and are now about two miles inland. There are two Brigades in line in advance of us. I don’t think anything will be done on this side.

13th — Yesterday I dined with Lawrence on board the “Pawnee,” and met some very pleasant men among the officers. It has been very fortunate for me to have found so many old acquaintances here, as it has been the means of my meeting a great many people who would have otherwise been disinclined to make the acquaintance of an officer commanding a black regiment.

Our men are out on picket with the white regiments, and have no trouble with them. One of my companies was driven in by a small force of Rebels last night, and behaved very well indeed. The Rebel pickets call to us, that they will give us three days to clear out.

… There is a letter from Father a month old at Beaufort, and perhaps your missing ones are there. I shall send this to Father, as our conveniences for writing are very few, and I cannot write another letter in time for this mail.

We have not had out clothes off since we left St. Helena, and have absolutely nothing but an India-rubber blanket apiece. Officers and men are in the same boat. I sent down to-day to get a clean shirt and a horse. They will not allow any accumulation of luggage here.

The general feeling is that Gillmore will get Charleston at last. . . .

Governor Andrew writes that he has urged the Secretary of War to send General Barlow here to take command of the black troops. This is what I have been asking him to do for some time.

We got some ham for dinner to-day, which is an improvement on salt-junk. I hope the mail will be allowed to go this time.

Good bye, dearest Annie.

Your loving Rob

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July 7, 1863

A letter, dated the 6th, from Shaw to Brigade commander Brig. Gen. George C. Strong:

ST. HELENA ISLAND, July 6, 1863. [BBR],p.49


GENERAL, — I did not pay my respects to you before you left this post because I did not wish to disturb you when making your preparations for departure.

I desire, however, to express to you my regret that my regiment no longer forms a part of the force under your command. I was the more disappointed at being left behind, that I had been given to understand that we were to have our share in the work in this department. I feel convinced too that my men are capable of better service than mere guerilla warfare, and I hoped to remain permanently under your command.

It seems to me quite important that the colored soldiers should be associated as much as possible with the white troops, in order that they may have other witnesses besides their own officers to what they are capable of doing. I trust that the present arrangement is not permanent.

With many wishes for your success, believe me very sincerely and respectfully

Your obedient servant,


Colonel Commanding Fifty-fourth Regiment Mass. Infantry.

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