Special Reports

July 12, 2013

Events mark 150th anniversary of 54th Mass. attack

Just after the nation marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg – considered the turning point of the Civil War – six days of events next week commemorate a lesser-known fight that helped put to rest the myth that black soldiers could not fight.

Just after the nation marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg – considered the turning point of the Civil War – six days of events next week commemorate a lesser-known fight that helped put to rest the myth that black soldiers could not fight.

Thursday is the 150th anniversary of the ill-fated 1863 attack by the black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on Confederate Battery Wagner on Charleston Harbor – an attack chronicled in the movie “Glory” and one that was part of a Union attempt to capture the city where the Civil War began.

While the attack was unsuccessful, the valor of the black troops of the unit raised in Boston dispelled the thought, common in both the North and the South, that blacks could not fight. It also encouraged the enlistment of another 200,000 black troops in the Union army.

On Thursday, more than 50 black re-enactors from five states and the District of Columbia travel by boat to Morris Island, where they will fire a salute and lay a wreath in honor of the fallen. The battery itself has been lost to time and tides.

The re-enactors will camp in several sites around Charleston beginning on Tuesday.

On Thursday evening, at about the hour of the attack, there will be a concert of Civil War music at Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island. Then 294 luminaries will be lit on a field honoring those both North and South who perished at Wagner.

“Glory” will be shown Friday on an outdoor screen in Marion Square in Charleston. The 1989 film starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman helped bring the story of the 54th Massachusetts to a wider audience.

Of the 600 black troops who charged the battery, 218 were killed, wounded or captured. The 54th later served in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida before returning to Massachusetts after the war ended.

Joe McGill, a member of Company I of the 54th Massachusetts re-enactors, said that people thought black troops would cut and run during battle. Battery Wagner proved them wrong.

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