American Civil War: Battles of Fort Wagner

Print of African-American troops attacking a fort.
The 54th Massachusetts attacks Fort Wagner.

Library of Congress

The Battles of Fort Wagner were fought on July 11 and 18, 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In the summer of 1863, Union Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore sought to advance towards Charleston, SC. The first step in this campaign required capturing Fort Wagner on nearby Morris Island. After an initial attack failed on July 11, he ordered a more comprehensive assault to commence on July 18. This saw the 54th Massachusetts, comprised of African American troops commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, lead the advance. Though the attack ultimately failed, the 54th Massachusetts' strong performance proved that the fighting ability and spirit of African American troops was equal to that of their white comrades.


In June 1863, Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore assumed command of the Department of the South and began planning operations against the Confederate defenses at Charleston, SC. An engineer by trade, Gillmore initially achieved fame the year before for his role in the capture of Fort Pulaski outside Savannah, GA. Pushing forward, he sought to capture the Confederate fortifications on James and Morris Islands with the goal of establishing batteries to bombard Fort Sumter. Marshaling his forces on Folly Island, Gillmore prepared to cross over to Morris Island in early June.

Second Battle of Fort Wagner

  • Conflict: Civil War (1861-1865)
  • Date: July 18, 1863
  • Armies and Commanders:
  • Union
  • Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore
  • 5,000 men
  • Confederate
  • Brigadier General William Taliaferro
  • Brigadier General Johnson Hagood
  • 1,800 men
  • Casualties:
  • Union: 246 killed, 880 wounded, 389 captured/missing
  • Confederate: 36 killed, 133 wounded, 5 captured/missing

First Attempt on Fort Wagner

Supported by four ironclads from Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and Union artillery, Gillmore dispatched Colonel George C. Strong's brigade across Lighthouse Inlet to Morris Island on June 10. Advancing north, Strong's men cleared several Confederate positions and approached Fort Wagner. Spanning the width of the island, Fort Wagner (also known as Battery Wagner) was defended by thirty-foot high sand and earth walls which were reinforced with palmetto logs. These ran from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to a thick swamp and Vincent's Creek in the west.

Manned by a 1,700-man garrison led by Brigadier General William Taliaferro, Fort Wagner mounted fourteen guns and was further defended by a moat studded with spikes which ran along its landward walls. Seeking to maintain his momentum, Strong attacked Fort Wagner on July 11. Moving through thick fog, only a single Connecticut regiment was able to advance. Though they overran a line of enemy rifle pits, they were quickly repulsed with over 300 casualties. Pulling back, Gillmore made preparations for a more substantial assault which would be heavily supported by artillery.

Second Battle of Fort Wagner

At 8:15 AM on July 18, Union artillery opened fired on Fort Wagner from the south. This was soon joined by fire from eleven of Dahlgren's ships. Continuing through the day, the bombardment did little actual damage as the fort's sand walls absorbed the Union shells and the garrison took cover in a large bombproof shelter. As the afternoon progressed, several Union ironclads closed and continued the bombardment at close range. With the bombardment underway, Union forces began preparing for the assault. Though Gillmore was in command, his chief subordinate, Brigadier General Truman Seymour, had operational control.

Portrait of Robert Gould Shaw
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Strong's brigade was selected to lead the assault with Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam's men following as the second wave. A third brigade, led by Brigadier General Thomas Stevenson, stood in reserve. In deploying his men, Strong accorded Colonel Robert Gould Shaw's 54th Massachusetts the honor of leading the assault. One of the first regiments composed of African American troops, the 54th Massachusetts deployed in two lines of five companies each. They were followed by the remainder of Strong's brigade.

Blood at the Walls

As the bombardment concluded, Shaw raised his sword and signaled the advance. Moving forward, the Union advance was compressed at a narrow point in the beach. As the lines of blue neared, Taliaferro's men emerged from their shelter and began manning the ramparts. Moving slightly west, the 54th Massachusetts came under Confederate fire approximately 150 yards from the fort. Pushing forward, they were joined by Strong's other regiments which attacked the wall closer to the sea. Taking heavy losses, Shaw led his men through the moat and up the wall (Map).

Reaching the top he waved his sword and called "Forward 54th!" before being struck by several bullets and killed. Under fire from their front and left, the 54th continued to fight. Incensed by the sight of African American troops, the Confederates gave no quarter. To the east, the 6th Connecticut achieved some success as the 31st North Carolina had failed to man its part of the wall. Scrambling, Taliaferro gathered groups of men to oppose the Union threat. Though supported by the 48th New York, the Union assault bogged down as Confederate artillery fire prevented additional reinforcements from reaching the fight.

On the beach, Strong desperately tried to get his remaining regiments forward before being mortally wounded in the thigh. Collapsing, Strong gave the order for his men to retreat. Around 8:30 PM, Putnam finally began advancing after receiving orders from an incensed Seymour who could not understand why the brigade had not entered the fray. Crossing the moat, his men renewed the fight in the fort's southeast bastion begun by the 6th Connecticut. A desperate battle ensued in the bastion which was worsened by a friendly fire incident involving the 100th New York.

Attempting to organize a defense in the southeast bastion, Putnam sent messengers calling for Stevenson's brigade to come up in support. Despite these requests, the third Union brigade never advanced. Clinging to their position, the Union troops turned back two Confederate counterattacks when Putnam was killed. Seeing no other option, Union forces began evacuating the bastion. This withdrawal coincided with the arrival of the 32nd Georgia which had been ferried from the mainland at the order of Brigadier General Johnson Hagood. With these reinforcements, the Confederates succeeded in driving the last Union troops out of Fort Wagner.


The fighting ended around 10:30 PM as the last Union troops either retreated or surrendered. In the fighting, Gillmore sustained 246 killed, 880 wounded, and 389 captured. Among the dead were Strong, Shaw, and Putnam. Confederate losses numbered only 36 killed, 133 wounded, and 5 captured. Unable to take the fort by force, Gillmore pulled back and later laid siege to it as part of his larger operations against Charleston. The garrison at Fort Wagner ultimately abandoned it on September 7 after enduring supply and water shortages as well as intense bombardments by Union guns.

The assault on Fort Wagner brought great notoriety to the 54th Massachusetts and made a martyr of Shaw. In the period preceding the battle, many questioned the fighting spirit and ability of African American troops. The 54th Massachusetts' gallant performance at Fort Wagner aided in dispelling this myth and worked to bolster recruitment of additional African American units.

In the action, Sergeant William Carney became the first African American winner of the Medal of Honor. When the regiment's color bearer fell, he picked up the regimental colors and planted them atop Fort Wagner's walls. When the regiment retreated, he carried the colors to safety despite being twice wounded in the process.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battles of Fort Wagner." ThoughtCo, Sep. 21, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, September 21). American Civil War: Battles of Fort Wagner. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battles of Fort Wagner." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).