Fort Wagner (also called Battery Wagner) was a beachhead fortification on Morris Island, South Carolina, that covered the southern approach to Charleston Harbor. It was the site of two American Civil War battles in the campaign known as Operations Against the Defenses of Charleston in 1863, and it is considered one of the toughest beachhead defenses constructed by the Confederate army.
Named for deceased Lt. Col. Thomas M. Wagner, Fort Wagner measured 250 by 100 yards (91 m), and spanned an area between the Atlantic on the east and an impassable swamp on the west. Its walls, composed of sand and earth, rose 30 feet (9.1 m) above the level beach and were supported by palmetto logs and sandbags. The fort's arsenal included fourteen cannons, the largest a 10-inch (250 mm) Columbiad that fired a 128-pound shell. It was a large structure capable of sheltering nearly 1,000 of the fort's 1,700-man garrison and provided substantial protection against naval shelling. The fort's land face was protected by a water-filled trench, 10 feet (3.0 m) wide and 5 feet (1.5 m) deep, surrounded by buried land mines and sharpened palmetto stakes. The fort itself was supported by defenses throughout Morris Island.
The Second Battle of Fort Wagner, a week later, is better known. This was the Union attack on July 18, 1863, led by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first major American military units made up of black soldiers. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts on foot while they charged, and was killed in the assault.
Although a tactical defeat, the publicity of the battle of Fort Wagner led to further action for black troops in the Civil War, and it spurred additional recruitment that gave the Union Army a further numerical advantage in troops over the South.
The Union besieged the fort after the unsuccessful assault. By August 25, Union entrenchments were close enough to attempt an assault on the Advanced Rifle Pits, 240 yards in front of the Battery, but this attempt was defeated. A second attempt, by the 24th Mass. Inf., on August 26 was successful. After enduring almost 60 days of heavy shelling, the Confederates abandoned it on the night of September 6–7, 1863. withdrawing all operable cannons and the garrison.
The main reason the fort was abandoned was a concern about access to fresh water. The bodies of the Union troops (54th Massachusetts and many white troops) were buried close to the fort and the decomposition of the bodies poisoned the fresh water well within the fort. Continuing bombardment and interception of food/water supplies by boat from Charleston made holding the fort difficult.
Within twenty years of the Civil War, the remnants of the fort had been washed away by erosion on Morris Island. A group of three ex-servicemen traveled to the fort in May 1885 and reported that the entire fort and approaches to it had washed away into the ocean.
The most famous regiment that fought for the Union in the battle of Fort Wagner was the 54th regiment, which was one of the first African-American regiments in the war. The 54th was controversial in the North, where many people supported the abolition of slavery, but still treated African-Americans as lesser or inferior to whites. Though some claimed blacks could not fight as well as whites, the actions of the 54th Massachusetts demonstrated once again the fallacy in that argument, as this was not the first time blacks ever fought in war or even for the United States. Many blacks had fought in the American Revolution on both sides and again in the War of 1812, as well as in over 250 slave revolts in the United States alone.
William Carney, an African-American and a sergeant with the 54th, is considered the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions at Fort Wagner in recovering and returning the unit's U.S. Flag to Union lines. After the battle, the Southern soldiers buried the regiment's commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw, in a mass grave with the African-American soldiers of his regiment, viewing this as an insult to him. Instead, his family thanked the Southern soldiers for burying Shaw with his men. That site is no longer visible; the land has eroded into Charleston harbor, and the remains of Colonel Shaw and his men have been washed out to sea by Atlantic hurricanes.
Depictions in popular culture
- The 54th and Fort Wagner
- Correspondence relating to fortification of Morris Island and operations of engineers. New York. 1878. Retrieved 26 September 2014.
- Twiggs, T. D. D., Hon. Lieut. Col. (CSA, retired, deceased), The Defense of Battery Wagner North & South - The Official Magazine of the Civil War Society, Issue 4, Page 46.
- "Battery Wagner Swept Away". Charleston News & Courier. May 9, 1885. p. 8. Retrieved Nov 12, 2012.
- Life, pg 113
- Robert Gould Shaw at Find A Grave