On this dayJul 18, 1863

Black Union Soldiers Lead Attack on Confederate Troops at Fort Wagner

Image | National Park Service

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry -- the nation's first all-black infantry unit -- stormed South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston. Colonel Robert Shaw, their white commander, assembled 600 soldiers to wait just outside Fort Wagner’s fortified walls, then led the men over the walls at nightfall.

In February 1863, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew issued the Civil War’s first enlistment call for black soldiers. More than 1,000 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 seven dollars less in weekly pay than white soldiers. As a protest against this inequality, the infantry refused to accept any pay until the government ended racial pay inequality between black soldiers and white soldiers. Nevertheless, racially discriminatory wage policies persisted for the duration of the Civil War.

On the night of the attack on Fort Wagner, Colonel Shaw led the soldiers into the fort -- but it was soon clear that he and the Union generals had underestimated the number of Confederate soldiers waiting inside: 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.

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