Slaves to Soldiers: Storming Fort Wagner

From the opening days of the Civil War, thousands of free blacks and fugitive slaves volunteered for the Union Army, only to be denied service by President Lincoln, who argued that the war was being fought to restore the Union, not to end slavery. However, as the war lengthened and worsened, Lincoln's slavery policy or strategy changed profoundly. On September 22, 1862, he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, warning that if the South did not end its rebellion within 100 days, all slaves in the South would be freed. The edict also permitted former slaves and Northern blacks to enter the armed services. By the end of the Civil War, about 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy.

On July 18, 1863, on Morris Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment composed entirely of free African American men, began their assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold. After the war, the sergeant of the 54th, William Harvey Carney, became the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for taking up the fallen Union flag and carrying it to the fort's walls. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of the regiment, was killed in the charge, along with 116 of his men, and the Union forces failed to capture the fortress. Shaw, an abolitionist born to a prominent Boston family, had been recruited by Massachusetts governor John Andrew to raise and command the all-black regiment, the first of its kind in the Civil War. A legend running below the print gives details of the carnage incurred during the assault on Fort Wagner: Union losses: Gen. Strong, Cols. Shaw, Chatfield, Putnam, Gen. Seymore, 1,200 soldiers; Confederate losses: 16 officers and 300 soldiers.

Storming Fort Wagner. Color lithograph, July 5, 1890. Published by Kurz & Allison, Chicago.
The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division.

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