First Principles

Battery Wagner: An African-American ‘Glory’ in the Fight for Freedom

Without the participation of African Americans, the war to save the Union “as it was” could not have been transformed into a war to save the Union “forever worthy of the saving”—without slavery.

July of 1863 was a critically important month in the American Civil War. During the first three days of that month, two great armies clashed at Gettysburg, resulting in a decisive Confederate defeat. On July 4, Vicksburg, the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi, surrendered to Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Both were great Union victories that ultimately helped to restore the Union.

But there is a lesser known battle that occurred on July 18 of that year: the Union assault on Battery Wagner, one of the forts defending Charleston Harbor. Although a Union defeat, it marked a major milestone in the history of the United States: the transition of African-Americans from servitude to citizenship.

The assault of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first all-black units of the Civil War, was portrayed in the movie “Glory.” Suffering a casualty rate of 40 percent, the performance of the 54th illustrated the fact that African-Americans were willing to fight—and die—for their freedom. Accordingly, the 54th Massachusetts constituted the vanguard of a force of African-Americans that would help save the Union and end slavery.

Ultimately, some 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union army. They constituted 120 infantry regiments, 12 regiments of heavy artillery, 10 batteries of light artillery, and seven cavalry regiments. At the end of the war, they constituted 12 percent of the Union’s military manpower.

The former slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had called for arming blacks at the very outset of the war. Writing in his Monthly of May 1861, Douglass argued that the way “to put an end to the savage and desolating war now waged by the slaveholders, is to strike down slavery itself, the primal cause of that war.”

He called for unleashing a “liberating army” on the slaveholders and denounced the hesitation of the government to employ “the sable arm.” Instead, Union forces were returning escaped slaves to their masters. “Would to God you would let us do something! We lack nothing but your consent,” Douglass wrote. He concluded: “Until the nation shall repent of this weakness and folly, until they shall make the cause of their country the cause of freedom, until they shall strike down slavery, the source and center of this gigantic rebellion, they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm, nor will it succeed in crushing the cause of our present problems.”

Abraham Lincoln would come to share Douglass’s view regarding the psychological impact of enlisting black troops in the Union cause. As he wrote to Andrew Johnson, the Unionist governor of Tennessee, in March 1863, “the bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.” 

But in the beginning, Lincoln was constrained by prudential considerations: His hesitation regarding both emancipation and the arming of black soldiers was based on his need to maintain a working coalition between his Republican Party and “War Democrats,” who were willing to fight to restore the Union but who did not want to interfere with slavery.

Congress authorized the enlistment of black troops by means of two pieces of legislation: the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act, both enacted July 17, 1862.  But even with congressional authorization, the black-recruitment enterprise had to overcome a great deal of resistance, including the prejudices of many Northern whites. 

Among the contradictory arguments put forward by those who opposed the policy were the assertion that blacks would not enlist in the first place; that they were too cowardly to fight; that arming them would unleash their “savage nature”; that they lacked the intelligence to be good soldiers; that whites would not serve alongside them; that their presence would demoralize white Union soldiers; and that arming them would stiffen the backs of the rebels.

In addition to facing the prejudices of white Union soldiers, black soldiers faced a special danger from the Confederates, who saw them (including free blacks) not as soldiers but rather as escaped slaves engaged in servile insurrection (and their white officers as inciting servile insurrection). The Confederate Congress made this crystal clear in its joint resolutions of April and May 1862, prompting Lincoln to issue an Order of Retaliation.

Although pressure from the Europeans, whom the Confederacy needed to court, forced the Confederate government to back down on that policy, Confederate officers on the scene sometimes acted on their own, either refusing to take black prisoners or fighting under a black flag, a signal that “no quarter [is] given or expected.” The most infamous example came at Fort Pillow in April 1864. Half of the fort’s garrison was made up of black soldiers, and while one-third of the white soldiers were killed, two-thirds of the black soldiers died, many after they had attempted to surrender. A similar event occurred during the same month at Poison Springs, Arkansas.

In 1892, Norwood Penrose Hallowell, the colonel of the 55th Massachusetts, captured the meaning of what the black soldier had accomplished during the war against great odds: 

We called upon them in the day of our trial, when volunteering had ceased, when the draft was a partial failure, and the bounty system a senseless extravagance. They were ineligible for promotion, they were not to be treated as prisoners of war. Nothing was definite except that they could be shot and hanged as soldiers. Fortunate indeed it is for us, as well as for them, that they were equal to the crisis; that the grand historic moment which comes to a race only once in many centuries came to them, and they recognized it.

Although “Glory” served to open the eyes of Americans to the role of African-American soldiers in the Civil War, the movie conveys some historical inaccuracies. Some are minor. Others less so. Most seriously from the standpoint of historical accuracy, the 54th, portrayed in the movie as made up largely of runaway slaves like John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) or Private Trip (Denzel Washington in a role for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor) was in fact, a regiment of freedmen, like Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), recruited not only from Massachusetts but New York and Pennsylvania as well. Two of Frederick Douglass’ sons were among the first to volunteer for the 54th and Lewis Douglass, the elder son, served from the outset as the regiment’s sergeant-major.

But historical inaccuracies aside, “Glory” contains a deeper truth, which is illustrated by a story recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus. At the beginning of Book Four of The History, Herodotus tells of the return of the nomadic Scythians from their long war against the Medes, during which time the Scythian women had taken up with their slaves. The Scythians warriors now found a race of slaves arrayed against them.

Having been repulsed repeatedly by the slaves, one of the Scythians admonishes his fellows to set aside their weapons and take up horsewhips. “As long as they are used to seeing us with arms, they think that they are our equals and that their fathers are likewise our equals. Let them see us with whips instead of arms, and they will learn that they are our slaves; and, once they have realized that, they will not stand their ground against us.”

The tactic worked. The slaves are bewildered by the whip-wielding Scythians, lose their fighting spirit, and flee in terror. The implication of Herodotus’s story is clear. There are natural masters and natural slaves. A slave has the soul of a slave and lacks the manliness to fight for his freedom, especially if a master never deigns to treat him as a man.

At the time of the Civil War, most Southerners believed that blacks were naturally servile. The Southern/Scythian view was reflected in a comment by Howell Cobb of Georgia: “The day you make soldiers of [Negroes] is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

But there was doubt about their manly spirit in the north as well. Even supporters of the effort to raise black troops expressed uncertainty. In “Glory,” a reporter from Harper’s Weekly asks Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Robert Shaw, “will they fight? A million readers want to know.” Shaw replies, “a million and one.” 

In this scene, Broderick’s Shaw is paraphrasing a letter from Captain William Simpkins of the 54th Massachusetts, written just before his death during the regiment’s assault on Battery Wagner: “this is nothing but an experiment after all; but it is an experiment that I think it is high time we should, try—an experiment which, the sooner we prove fortunate the sooner we can count upon an immense number of hardy troops that can stand the effect of a Southern climate without injury; an experiment the sooner we prove unsuccessful, the sooner we shall establish an important truth and rid ourselves of false hope.” This illustrates the fact that in 1863, even elite New England abolitionists were uncertain of the abilities of African-Americans as soldiers.

While the material contribution of African Americans, both freedmen and former slaves, to Union victory was substantial, their participation in the war to achieve their own liberty was important for its own sake: to make it clear that they were not the natural slaves that Southerners, and indeed many Northerners, believed them to be. “Who asks now in doubt and derision, ‘Will the Negro fight?’” observed one abolitionist after the assault of the 54th against Battery Wagner. “The answer is spoken from the cannon’s mouth . . . it comes to us from . . . those graves beneath Fort Wagner’s walls, which the American people will never forget.”

In his Peoria speech of 1854, Lincoln said “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it . . .  If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”

Without the participation of African Americans, the war to save the Union “as it was” could not have been transformed into a war to save the Union “forever worthy of the saving”— that is, without slavery. And without that participation it is unlikely that African Americans could ever have achieved full citizenship and equality in the United States.