CHARLESTON, S.C. – Just after the nation marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg — considered the turning point of the Civil War — six days of events next week commemorate a lesser-known fight that helped put to rest the myth that black soldiers could not fight.
Thursday is the 150th anniversary of the ill-fated 1863 attack by the black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on Confederate Battery Wagner on Charleston Harbor. The attack was chronicled in the movie “Glory” and was one that was part of a Union attempt to capture the city where the Civil War began.
While the attack was unsuccessful, the valor of the black troops of the unit raised in Boston dispelled the thought, common in both the North and the South, that blacks could not fight. It also encouraged the enlistment of another 200,000 black troops in the Union army.
On Thursday, more than 50 black re-enactors from five states and the District of Columbia will travel by boat to Morris Island, where they will fire a salute and lay a wreath in honor of the fallen. The battery itself has been lost to time and tides. The re-enactors will camp in several sites around Charleston beginning Tuesday.
On Thursday evening, at about the hour of the attack, there will be a concert of Civil War music at Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island. Then 294 luminaries will be lit on a field honoring those both North and South who perished at Wagner.
“Glory” will be shown Friday on an outdoor screen in Marion Square in Charleston. The 1989 film starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman helped bring the story of the 54th Massachusetts to a wider audience.
Scholars and authors gather at the historic Dock Street Theatre on Saturday to discuss the 1863 Charleston campaign. On Sunday, a monument to the fallen at Battery Wagner will be dedicated on Charleston’s Battery. During the week, there will be living history events including musket firings, drills and talks at Moultrie.
Of the 600 black troops who charged the battery, 218 were killed, wounded or captured. The 54th later served in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida before returning to Massachusetts after the war ended.
Stephen Wise, the museum curator at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., who has written a book on the Charleston campaign, said there were questions in 1863 about the fighting ability of blacks.
“There were black regiments fighting elsewhere long before the 54th existed. But you have the 54th raised as a show regiment to promote the use of black troops,” he said. “Had it failed, black troops would have been more or less relegated to garrison duty and labor battalions and not active combat.”
Joe McGill, a member of Company I of the 54th Massachusetts re-enactors, said that people thought black troops would cut and run during battle. Battery Wagner proved them wrong.
He said the fight represents a widened purpose of the war beyond simply preserving the Union.
“African-Americans were more prominent in the war and proving themselves and fighting to free their brethren who were enslaved,” he said. “It gives the war a new reason for being.”
The Confederates would abandon Wagner a few months after the fight but held Charleston until late in the war. They evacuated the city as Union Gen. William T. Sherman moved north through South Carolina in early 1865.