If the battle for Fort Wagner meant life or death for the Confederacy, it also represented a signal opportunity for black Americans. The 54th was no ordinary regiment. It was the first African-American unit recruited in the North and the first black outfit selected to lead a major attack. With it marched the hopes of countless African-Americans, free and slave. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States,” the charismatic black orator Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, were among the first volunteers for the 54th.
Many whites were skeptical that former slaves, or even free blacks, had the wherewithal to face battle. Earlier in the war, President Lincoln had also worried that arming blacks would push slave-owning border states, such as Kentucky, into the Rebel camp. By 1862, however, faltering white enlistments impelled Lincoln to recalibrate his concerns. Yankee officers praised the 54th’s discipline, but no one knew how it would fight. “The eyes of the nation were on them,” says Wise. For decades, Morris Island was barely a footnote to the grand narratives of Civil War history. That changed with the release, in 1989, of Glory, recounting the 54th’s story (with Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick). “The film showed me for the first time that we had a say in the outcome of the Civil War,” says McGill. “There are very few places where African-Americans can experience in a positive way what their ancestors did. Morris Island shows how we got out of slavery and started to move forward. African-American Civil War reenactors often ask me to bring them back sand from Morris morriIsland when I go out there.”
“The significance of the 54th’s attack on Fort Wagner was enormous,” says PrincetonUniversity historian James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, a single-volume survey of the war. “Its sacrifice became the war’s dominant positive symbol of black courage. It was the most publicized single example of blacks in combat during the war, and it gave the final impetus to the Lincoln administration’s commitment to recruiting large numbers of black soldiers. In 1864, Lincoln publicly said that the Union cause could not prevail without the contribution of the more than 100,000 black soldiers then in uniform.”
But Morris Island’s historical importance lies not only in the 54th’s assault on Fort Wagner. The battle for the island, and for Charleston, also introduced several military innovations, including trench warfare; long-range artillery; a forerunner of the machine gun; the use of wire entanglements and searchlights; and even aerial reconnaissance. “World War I was foreshadowed here,” says Wise.
“Morris Island is the best Civil War site there is in Charleston, if not South Carolina,” says Civil War historian Gordon C. Rhea, author of Carrying the Flag, the story of Confederate soldier Charles Whilden. “The thought of it being turned into a subdivision makes me cry. Once you destroy it, you can’t ever get it back again.”
The modern battle for Morris Island climaxed in May 2008, when a coalition of public and private donors under the auspices of the non-profit Trust for Public Land raised $3 million to purchase the last privately held land on Morris Island from Ginn Resorts. (Key partneres in the effort were the South Carolina Development Bank, the South Carolina State Ports Authority and the City of Charleston.)
"A national treasure preserved!" proclaimed the Charleston Post and Courier. A master plan for the island recommends that it be left essentially as it is, in pristine solitude, with no public dock, boardwalk or other facilities. However, an interpretive center may eventually be built on nearby Folly Island, which is accesible by car.
As the blue-clad soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts neared Fort Wagner that night in July, the naval guns fell silent. Smoke hung over the fort’s sloping, shell-pocked earthen rampart. Nothing seemed to move. In all, 5,000 men would eventually be committed to the assault. The Federal command was counting on sheer numbers and its artillery to overwhelm the enemy. Some believed the fort to be defended by as few as 300 men. However, the Confederates had broken the Union’s secret code and knew almost precisely when the assault was to begin. Reinforcements, moved into the fort under cover of darkness, had strengthened the garrison to more than 1,600 men. Most had barely slept for days, and they had spent the past eight hours concealed and suffocating in the fort’s bunker. “They were exhausted,” says Rhea. “But they had an excellent defensive position. And they certainly were not prepared to surrender to black troops.”
Six hundred yards from the fort, Colonel Shaw ordered the 54th to fix bayonets. At 200 yards, Confederate fire opened up. At 100 yards or so, Shaw gave the order to charge; the men broke into a run. At 80 yards, Confederate infantrymen suddenly appeared on the parapet. “The silent and shattered walls of Wagner all at once burst forth into a blinding sheet of vivid light,” a Yankee observer recorded. Grapeshot tore through the 54th’s ranks. “Our men fell like grass before a sickle,” a survivor later recalled.
Undaunted, the attacking troops plunged into the fort’s foot-deep moat. The men swarmed up the sloping earthen rampart, clambered over the bodies of the fallen and leapt down among the cannon. Miraculously, Shaw himself managed to reach the parapet. “Onward, boys!” he shouted. “Forward, Fifty-Fourth!” He raised his sword, then toppled forward, shot dead. The Southerners fought with brutal ferocity. In the darkness made red by gunfire, men hacked at each other with bayonets and swords, and hammered with musket butts, gun rammers and hand spikes.