More than 150 years of wind and tide have swept across Morris Island since the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led the assault against the Confederates in Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863. All traces of the hundreds who died there and the unvanquished seaward fort have been scoured away. Only a wisp of sand remains, a sacred place on the edge of Charleston Harbor.
The 54th Massachusetts’ role in the 5,000-man charge on Battery Wagner was movingly depicted in the 1989 film Glory. Although the Federal action (the second against this fort) was a disaster, the 54th’s courage under withering Confederate fire was a victory in their own war to prove that black soldiers could be warriors and patriots. Glory ends, though, with the valorous death of the central character, the 54th’s colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. Although 42 percent of their fighting force was among the 1,515 Union casualties of the day (the Confederates had 174), the saga of the brave regiment was just beginning.
Among the survivors was Sergeant Joseph H. Barquet, whose life came full circle when he returned to South Carolina with “an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder.”
Barquet was born in 1823 into the complex world of Charleston’s free people of color. His mixed-race parents were umbrella makers who raised their seven children in a brick house at the corner of Meeting Street and Horlbeck Alley. Joseph’s formal education ended in 1835 when teaching even free African-American students became a crime in South Carolina. Ten years later, he left for New York, as did many members of the “brown elite,” to escape the escalating oppression in the state. By law, he could never return.
Disheartened by the racial prejudice he encountered in the North, Barquet embraced Lord Byron’s famous injunction: “Who would be free, themselves must strike the first blow.” He joined with other black men who were agitating for their rights as Americans, wrote letters to abolitionist journals, and won a reputation as a “colored Demosthenes” for his fiery anti-slavery speeches. Although he was a 40-year-old husband and father of three living in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1863 when Frederick Douglass—a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts—issued his call, “Men of Color to Arms,” Barquet was soon on an east-bound train. He had been waiting for this moment all his life.
After the “glory” of the battlefield, the survivors found that war was still hell. On July 20, Commanding General Quincy A. Gillmore vowed that after two failed charges, his men would dig their way to Battery Wagner. He planned to push his big guns right up to the Rebel’s front door via a series of parallel trenches four feet wide and two feet deep.
When Barquet lifted his first load of heavy sand, Battery Wagner was 1,350 yards away. The siege would go on for 58 days. Barquet described the experience of all the “sappers” (or diggers) in an article for a New York publication, the Weekly Anglo-African: “Eight hours out of thirty-six toiling and laboring in the face of death, shelling from front and flank, Minnie bullets, grape and shrapnel plunging, whizzing and plowing up the earth on all sides.”
They were always scared, always tired, always hungry, always dirty and wet. Their clothes rotted off their backs. Refusing their unequal wages, they worked without pay. Knowing that the cause of the black soldier was not yet won, the 54th did not complain. Shovelful by shovelful, they inched toward the prize. By September, they could hear the Confederates shouting oaths at them.
Then suddenly, it was over. In the early morning hours of September 7, 1863, a thousand Confederates slipped silently out of their fort and across the open water while the Union army slept.
The 54th never had the “grand ball” in the seat of secession as they expected; nor did they get to the front in Virginia as they had hoped. Still, the regiment had an honorable war. Much of it was heavy labor, but they had other opportunities to demonstrate their courage, notably in the 1864 battles of Olustee in Florida, of Honey Hill in Beaufort County, and during Potter’s Raid at the end of the war. On February 27, 1865, 10 days after the Confederates abandoned the city, the 54th marched triumphantly into Charleston. As they processed up Meeting Street, Barquet heard the throngs of freed slaves welcoming the soldiers as liberators. For some, the year of Jubilee had come. For a son of Charleston, it was quite a homecoming.