On this day, Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and 272 of his troops are killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina. Shaw was commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, perhaps the most famous regiment of African-American troops during the war.
Fort Wagner stood on Morris Island, guarding the approach to Charleston harbor. It was a massive earthwork, 600 feet wide and made from sand piled 30 feet high. The only approach to the fort was across a narrow stretch of beach bounded by the Atlantic on one side and a swampy marshland on the other. Union General Quincy Gillmore headed an operation in July 1863 to take the island and seal the approach to Charleston.
Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts were chosen to lead the attack of July 18. Shaw was the scion of an abolitionist family and a veteran of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley and Antietam campaigns. The regiment included two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the grandson of author and poet Sojourner Truth.
Union artillery battered Fort Wagner all day on July 18, but the barrage did little damage to the fort and its garrison. At 7:45 p.m., the attack commenced. Yankee troops had to march 1,200 yards down the beach to the stronghold, facing a hail of bullets from the Confederates. Shaw’s troops and other Union regiments penetrated the walls at two points but did not have sufficient numbers to take the fort. Over 1,500 Union troops fell or were captured to the Confederates’ 222.
Despite the failure, the battle proved that African-American forces could not only hold their own but also excel in battle. The experience of Shaw and his regiment was memorialized in the critically acclaimed 1990 movie Glory, starring Mathew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman. Washington won an Academy Award for his role in the film.