Colonel Shaw and his troops landed at Hilton Head on June 3. The next week, they were forced by Shaw’s superiors to participate in a particularly destructive raid on the town of Darien, Georgia. The colonel was furious: His troops had come South to fight for freedom and justice, he argued, not to destroy undefended towns with no military significance. He wrote to General George Strong and asked if the 54th might lead the next Union charge on the battlefield.
Even as they fought to end slavery in the Confederacy, the African-American soldiers of the 54th were fighting against another injustice as well. The U.S. Army paid black soldiers $10 a week; white soldiers got $3 more. To protest against this insult, the entire regiment–soldiers and officers alike–refused to accept their wages until black and white soldiers earned equal pay for equal work. This did not happen until the war was almost over.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts prepared to storm Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston. At dusk, Shaw gathered 600 of his men on a narrow strip of sand just outside Wagner’s fortified walls and readied them for action. “I want you to prove yourselves,” he said. “The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”
As night fell, Shaw led his men over the walls of the fort. (This was unusual; typically, officers followed their soldiers into battle.) Unfortunately, the Union generals had miscalculated: 1,700 Confederate soldiers waited inside the fort, ready for battle. The men of the 54th were outgunned and outnumbered. Two hundred and eighty one of the 600 charging soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Shaw himself was shot in the chest on his way over the wall and died instantly.
To show their contempt for the soldiers of the 54th, the Confederates dumped all of their bodies in a single unmarked trench and cabled Union leaders that “we have buried [Shaw] with his niggers.” The Southerners expected that this would be such an insult that white officers would no longer be willing to fight with black troops. In fact, the opposite was true: Shaw’s parents replied that there could be “no holier place” to be buried than “surrounded by…brave and devoted soldiers.”
The 54th lost the battle at Fort Wagner, but they did a great deal of damage there. Confederate troops abandoned the fort soon afterward. For the next two years, the regiment participated in a series of successful siege operations in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The 54th Massachusetts returned to Boston in September 1865.