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Events mark 150th anniversary of 54th Mass. attack

Jul. 12, 2013 - 01:01PM   |  
Re-enactors pray on the beach on Morris Island in Charleston, S.C., in a July 18, 2012, ceremony honoring the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the black Union unit that attacked Confederate Battery Wagner, in a fight recounted in the film 'Glory' Six days of events next week will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Re-enactors pray on the beach on Morris Island in Charleston, S.C., in a July 18, 2012, ceremony honoring the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the black Union unit that attacked Confederate Battery Wagner, in a fight recounted in the film 'Glory' Six days of events next week will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. (Bruce Smith / AP)
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Civil War re-enactors fire a salute on Morris Island in the harbor at Charleston, S.C., on July 18, 2012. (Bruce Smith / AP)

The commemoration at a glance

A look at some of the events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Battery Wagner, in which the 54th Massachusetts attacked a Confederate position on Charleston Harbor in the attack chronicled in the movie “Glory.”
■ July 16 - 17: More than 50 black re-enactors from five states and the District of Columbia hold encampments. Tuesday near Folly Beach and Wednesday at Trident Technical College in downtown Charleston.
■ July 18: The 150th anniversary of the battle. There will be living history events at Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island through the weekend. Black re-enactors journey by boat to Morris Island where they will fire a salute and lay a wreath to the fallen at Battery Wagner. That evening there is Civil War music and a talk by Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell at Moultrie. Luminaries will be lit in a field to commemorate the dead from both sides who fell in the battle.
■ July 19: The film “Glory” is shown outside in Marion Square in downtown Charleston. Black re-enactors sleep at the old Charleston Jail on Friday and Saturday.
■ July 20: Symposium featuring historians and authors speaking about the 1863 campaign for Charleston is held at the Dock Street Theatre
■ July 21: Monument to the 54th Massachusetts is dedicated in White Point Garden on Charleston’s Battery. — AP

CHARLESTON, S.C. — 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.

Scholars and authors gather at the historic Dock Street Theatre on Saturday to discuss the 1863 Charleston campaign. On Sunday, a monument to the fallen at Battery Wagner will be dedicated on Charleston’s Battery. During the week, there will be living history events including musket firings, drills and talks at Moultrie.

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.

Stephen Wise, the museum curator at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., who has written a book on the Charleston campaign, said there were questions in 1863 about the fighting ability of blacks.

“There were black regiments fighting elsewhere long before the 54th existed. But you have the 54th raised as a show regiment to promote the use of black troops,” he said. “Had it failed, black troops would have been more or less regulated to garrison duty and labor battalions and not active combat.”

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.

He said the fight represents a widened purpose of the war beyond simply preserving the Union.

“African-Americans were more prominent in the war and proving themselves and fighting to free their brethren who were enslaved,” he said. “It gives the war a new reason for being.”

The Confederates would abandon Wagner a few months after the fight but held Charleston until late in the war. They evacuated the city as Union Gen. William T. Sherman moved north through South Carolina in early 1865.

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