Fort Wagner (also called Battery Wagner) was a fortification on Morris Island, that covered the southern approach to Charleston Harbor. It was the site of two battles in the campaign known as Operations Against the Defenses of Charleston in 1863.
The first engagement, the Battle of Fort Wagner or the First Assault on Morris Island, occurred on July 11. The second is better known. The Battle of Fort Wagner/Morris Island, was the Union attack on July 18, led by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first major American military unit made up of African Americans. Col. Robert G. Shaw led the regiment on foot while they charged and was killed in the assault.
The Confederate fortifications, garrisoned by around 1,800 men, extended across the northern quarter of the low and sandy island. The main wall ran for 630-feet from the eastern ocean to salt marshes on the west. The wall was up to 30-feet high and a wide, but shallow, trench stretched in front. Much of the fort was earth barriers and sandbagged emplacements. Union forces landed on the island in early July.
On July 11, an amphibious Union force landed at Lighthouse Inlet at the north end of Morris Island and overran 2/3 of the island before being stopped at Battery Wagner, which guarded the Southern approaches to Charleston Harbor. It also was at a point which kept Union guns just beyond range of Charleston. After the first Union assault with 3 brigades on Fort Wagner failed, Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore reinforced his beachhead on Morris Island.
On July 18, Gillmore launched an attack against Battery Wagner. His goal was to capture the Battery and the remainder of the low, sandy, flea infested island (know locally as Coffin Island due to its use as a Lazzaretto and leper colony prior to the war). The fort was held by a small garrison of Confederate Infantry and Artillary and protected by a narrow approach up the beach, constricted by a marshy creek which funneled the soldiers onto a strip of sand a few hundred feet wide. After a heavy naval and land bombardment, as assault force led by the 54th Massachusetts, an experimental black regiment of free men from the North went in with fixed bayonets to storm the fort.
The bombardment had failed to destroy the sandbagged gun emplacements of the Fort and the assault column marched into a heavy artillary barrage and massed musketry. The unit's colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, was killed. Members of the brigade scaled the parapet but after brutal hand-to-hand combat were driven out with heavy casualties. Much of the Fort's garrisson consisted of troops from the Charleston area. The artillery was positioned on the right flank of the fort, in the sand dunes so as to sweep the front wall of the Fort with Cannister. Fighting was fierce. The Federals were able to occupy a small portion of the fort and the 54th. planted its colors atop the parapet. After lengthy hand to hand fighting, the Union troops were ordered to withdraw, leaving Wagner in Confederate hands. Losses were heavy.
Gilmore decided to attempt to take Wagner by siege, digging zig zag trenches towards the fort and moving his large guns to into ever closer range. The Union navy also pounded Wagner from the sea, using a large calcium light at night to prevent to Confederates from rebulding the fort. On some days a shell was thrown into Wagner every 30 seconds for hours at a time. The fort held out another 58 days under heavy bombardment before being abandoned in September 7.
This was the fourth time in the war that black troops played a crucial combat role, proving to skeptics that they would fight bravely if only given the chance.