Midpoint of the War: May to July 1863

Verdict of the Newspapers

Who led the assault on Battery Wagner?

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863) was a Boston blueblood who had somewhat reluctantly taken command of the first all-black regiment of Union soldiers. Shaw had been quite surprised, however, by the skill and energy of his men, and by the time he led them across the sandy beach to attack Battery Wagner, they had his respect and admiration. The men had reached a narrow spot of beach 600 yards from the battery the night before; Shaw now led them in a gallant charge across the sand. They covered about half the distance, and were just beginning to believe that the battery had been silenced the day before, when an awesome barrage of cannon, rifles, and muskets simply shattered their ranks.

Lieutenant-Colonel Shaw never hesitated; neither did his men. Some of them, including Shaw, actually reached the battery and stood, just for a moment, on its parapet, before falling to Confederate rifle fire. The color bearer of the regiment was killed, and Sergeant William Carney seized the U.S. colors (the Massachusetts state flag had been captured) and held them, kneeling on the parapet for what seemed like hours. On his return to where the attack began, Carney, who would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions, declared to his fellows that the colors had never touched the ground. Shaw died, as did 246 of his men. Another 880 were wounded, and another 389 went missing, in one of the bloodiest single encounters of the entire war. The Confederate defenders lost thirty-six killed and 133 wounded.


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