BOSTON — Exactly 150 years ago — on July 18, 1863 — the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first African-American regiment in the Union Army, stormed Fort Wagner in South Carolina. It was their first major engagement in the Civil War.
On Thursday, in front of the memorial to the regiment — also known as the Shaw Memorial, after the regiment’s commanding officer killed in that action — Gov. Deval Patrick and descendants of the men who fought commemorated the anniversary of the battle.
The Shaw Memorial has been called the greatest public work of American art of the 19th century. The sculpture by Augustus Saint Gaudens sits across from the State House steps, where Gov. Patrick read a letter from his favorite governor. It was one John Andrew wrote to the father of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the white man he was about to ask to command the first African-American regiment in the Union Army. Patrick read:
Boston, January 30, 1863.
As you may have seen by the newspapers, I am about to raise a colored regiment in Massachusetts. This, I cannot but regard as perhaps the most important corps to be organized during the whole war and I am very anxious to organize it judiciously in order that it may be a model for all future colored regiments. …
The 54th would fight its first major battle at Fort Wagner. One of its soldiers, 13-year-old drummer Henry Monroe, later wrote an account of the battle. Performance artist Reggie Gibson read it at Thursday’s event. It ends with the Shaw’s death.
“In the afternoon of the next day, a flag of truce was sent into the Rebel lines requesting the body of Col. Shaw,” Gibson read with great emotion. “The disdainful reply was: ‘We have buried him with his n******.’”
When the Confederates evacuated Fort Wagner two months later, Shaw’s family had the option of retrieving his body, but chose to let him lie with his brothers in arms.
Monroe’s granddaughter was at Thursday’s ceremony. Winifred Monroe Howard said before the 1989 movie about the 54th, “Glory,” — with Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman — her father never spoke of his father’s exploits and writings.
“I guess until ‘Glory’, we didn’t talk about these things,” Howard said. “That’s what directed me to dig up these papers.”
After Fort Wagner, Col. Edward Needles Hallowell took over the regiment. His descendant, Harry Pratt, read from the writings of his ancestor. The documents described the soldiers’ successful fight to be paid the same as white men, who earned $13 a month, while African-Americans made $7. Massachusetts offered to make up the difference and sent paymasters to where the men were fighting in South Carolina.
“In vain,” Pratt read. “They were the soldiers of the Union, not of a state. They would receive their pay in full from the United States or they would not receive it all. The nation might break its faith but they would keep theirs.”
Hallowell wrote that, in this struggle, the men of the 54th Regiment showed even greater bravery than in facing enemy fire.