July 18, 2020

Today was a relatively quiet news day as the nation mourned the loss of Representative John Lewis, so you can ignore this post at will without feeling like you’re going to miss out.

But for those of you who don’t mind a little history, today is an important historical anniversary.

On July 18, 1863, at dusk, the Black soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry of the U.S. Army charged the walls of Fort Wagner, a fortification on Morris Island off Charleston Harbor that covered the southern entrance to the harbor and thus was key to enabling the U.S. government to take the city. The 600 soldiers of the 54th made up the first Black regiment for the Union, organized after the Emancipation Proclamation called for the enlistment of African American soldiers. The 54th's leader was a Boston abolitionist from a leading family: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Shaw and his men had shipped out of Boston at the end of May 1863 for Beaufort, South Carolina, where the Union had gained an early foothold in its war to prevent the Confederates from dismembering the country. The men of the 54th knew they were not like other soldiers; they were symbols of how well Black men would fight for their country. Were they men? Or had enslavement destroyed their ability to take on a man's responsibilities?

The whole country was watching... and they knew it.

In the dark at Fort Wagner, the Massachusetts 54th proved that Black men were equal to any white men in the field. They fought with the determination that made African American regiments during the Civil War sustain higher losses than those of white regiments. The assault on the fort killed, wounded, or lost more than 250 of the 600 men, and made the formerly enslaved man Sergeant William Harvey Carney the first African American to be awarded a Medal of Honor. Badly wounded, Carney nonetheless defended the United States flag and carried it back to Union lines. Union soldiers did not take the fort that night, but no one could miss that Black men had proved that they were men equal to their white comrades.

The Battle of Fort Wagner left 30 men of the 54th dead on the field-- including Colonel Shaw-- and hurt 24 more so badly they would later die from their wounds. Fifteen were captured; 52 were missing and presumed dead. Another 149 were wounded. Confederates hoped to dishonor Colonel Shaw when they buried him in a mass grave with his men; instead, the family found it fitting.

In 2017, I had the chance to spend an evening in the house where the wounded soldiers of the 54th were taken after the battle.

It is a humbling thing to stand on that street that still looks so much like it did in 1863, and to realize that the men, carried hot and exhausted and bleeding and scared into that house a century and a half before were just people like you and me, who did what they felt they had to in front of Fort Wagner, and then endured the boat ride back to Beaufort, and got carried up these steps, and then lay on their cots in the small, crowded rooms of this house, and hoped that what they had done was worth the horrific cost.

I am not one for ghosts, but I swear you could feel the blood in the floors.

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