July 18th, 1863

Black Union Soldiers Lead Attack on Confederate Troops at Fort Wagner

In February 1863, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew issued the Civil War’s first enlistment call for black soldiers. More than 1000 men from Massachusetts and other states volunteered to serve, including Frederick Douglass’s sons, Charles and Lewis. Governor Andrew selected Colonel Robert Shaw, a young white officer, to lead the nation’s first black infantry unit.

From the outset, the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry were treated differently than their white counterparts, receiving $7 less weekly pay than white soldiers. It is reported that, as a protest against this inequity, the entire infantry refused to accept any pay until black soldiers received the same wages as white soldiers. Wage inequities between black and white soldiers persisted for the duration of the Civil War.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th prepared to storm South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston. Colonel Shaw assembled 600 soldiers, waited just outside Fort Wagner’s fortified walls, and led the men over the walls at nightfall. Colonel Shaw and the Union generals had underestimated the number of Confederate soldiers waiting inside the fort, and the men of the 54th were outnumbered and outgunned. More than 200 Union soldiers, including Colonel Shaw, were killed. As a sign of disrespect, Confederate soldiers unceremoniously dumped the fallen soldiers' bodies in a single unmarked grave.

Despite the Union’s loss at Fort Wagner, Confederate troops abandoned the site soon after the battle. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry continued to fight for the Union and participated in a series of successful military operations in Georgia and South Carolina before the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.