• Codie Eash

“The Sudden, Tremendous, and Simultaneous Fire” - The Keystone Zouaves Assault Fort Wagner


Few infantry charges of the Civil War are quite so eminent as the July 18, 1863, assault at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.


Six-and-a-half months after the Emancipation Proclamation formally permitted the enlistment of African American soldiers, the 54th Massachusetts, consisting entirely of black enlisted men, stormed a beachhead at Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, a short distance south of Fort Sumter. Despite initially suffering defeat on that occasion, in the eyes of many Unionists the 54th’s bravery and bloodshed legitimized the existence of state-sponsored black regiments and federally mandated United States Colored Troops. The charge of the 54th Massachusetts gained modern acclaim courtesy of the 1989 film, Glory.


Though it was raised in New England, within the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts were several dozen Pennsylvanians who hailed from all corners of the Commonwealth, including six white officers who were Philadelphia natives. Although the 54th is rightfully seen as the most memorable Federal unit involved in the engagements at Fort Wagner, it was but one of several regiments that attempted to seize the Confederate installation. Another unit present that July was the 76th Pennsylvania Infantry, consisting of residents of Lawrence, Mercer, Blair, York, Bedford, Westmoreland, Luzerne, and Beaver counties who were collectively known as the Keystone Zouaves for their flashy navy blue, gray, and red attire.


On July 10, 1863, the 76th Pennsylvania arrived at Morris Island via rowboats with the remainder of Brig. Gen. George C. Strong’s brigade, part of Truman Seymour’s division in Quincy Gillmore’s 10th Corps, otherwise called the Department of the South. Under cover of darkness, the men halted in a grassy marshland and endured a Confederate cannonade for two full hours, after which time the 76th and its sister regiments prepared for their attack against Battery Wagner.


The following morning, July 11, “before daybreak,” the 76th stepped forward in “a column of assault” with members of the 7th Connecticut and 9th Maine, reported General Strong, one week prior to the more renowned July 18 assault. “The leading battalion had received orders to dash forward with a shout when the enemy should open fire, and the other battalions were directed to maintain their respective intervals,” said Strong. Despite charging “under a very heavy fire of artillery and musketry,” the 7th Connecticut advanced “to the top of the parapet, where two of the enemy’s gunners were bayoneted.” Confederate guns "opened simultaneously” upon the 76th Pennsylvania just after 5:00 a.m., when the unit was “within a range of 200 yards.”[1]


The Pennsylvanians “halted and lay down upon the ground,” Strong observed—a necessary, but perilous, move in the face of severe Rebel fire. “Though they remained in this position but a few moments, and afterward moved gallantly forward, some of them even to the ditch, that half [of the regiment's movement] lost the battle, for the interval was lost and the Seventh, unsupported, were driven from the parapet,” concluded Strong. His brigade lost 330 officers and men killed, wounded, and captured in the failed July 11 charge. After it was “compelled to retire before a most withering fire,” historian Samuel P. Bates chronicled in 1869, the 76th tallied its own losses at 134 men wounded and 53 killed at this less-famous—but still bloody—First Battle of Fort Wagner.[2]


“The Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania Regiment, heretofore bearing the reputation of a most gallant and thoroughly disciplined organization, will have another and early opportunity to efface their remembrance of their involuntary fault,” Strong admiringly wrote. “The causes of their failure, and hence the failure of the assault were, first, the sudden, tremendous, and simultaneous fire which all encountered, and, second, the absence of their colonel [DeWitt C. Strawbridge], who was taken ill before the column was put in motion.”[3]


The second chance to which Strong alluded came seven days later during the legendary July 18 charge. The Keystone Zouaves were next-to-last in the seven-regiment column of Strong’s brigade—behind the 54th Massachusetts, 6th Connecticut, 48th New York, and 3rd New Hampshire, and in front of the 9th Maine, as well as Col. Haldimand S. Putnam’s brigade of New Hampshirites, Ohioans, and New Yorkers. “The troops went gallantly on...,” recorded General Gillmore, though “the leading regiment was soon thrown into a state of disorder, which reacted disadvantageously upon those who supported,” including the 76th Pennsylvania.[4]


“Night was approaching when the dispositions for the assault were made,” before this “desperate charge...upon the works,” Bates later reflected. “Just then a violent thunder storm burst over land and seas, the vivid flashes rendering the darkness...even more intense. In this fearful assault the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts—the first colored regiment raised in a Free State—participated, and here, while cheering the men to deeds of heroism, fell General Strong,” who was struck in the thigh by a bullet and subsequently died of tetanus (lockjaw) on July 30.[5]


According to Bates, the 76th lost 17 men killed and wounded in the assault on July 18, adding to the regiment’s crisis of having ranks “much reduced by battle and by sickness, occasioned by a life in the trenches.” In all, the assaulting 5,000-man Federal column under Gillmore and Seymour suffered 1,515 casualties, and was turned back the night of July 18 by a Confederate defensive network boasting just 1,620 soldiers and 14 cannon.[6]


Despite the heroism exhibited by Northern soldiers—and the fabled status earned by the 54th Massachusetts—the Second Battle of Fort Wagner ended in Union defeat, just as the initial attack had a week earlier. With their momentum smashed, the United States naval and ground troops settled in for a prolonged siege along the South Carolina coast that lasted until September, when Rebel guardians finally abandoned the previously impenetrable Fort Wagner.


As for the 76th Pennsylvania Infantry, the ultimately victorious Keystone Zouaves served on battlefields in Virginia and the Carolinas for the remainder of the war, and mustered out of service on July 18, 1865, exactly two years—to the day—after that fateful night at Fort Wagner.[7]





[1] Geo. C. Strong to Truman Seymour, “Reports of Brig. Gen. George C. Strong, U.S. Army, commanding brigade,” July 10, 1863, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1890), series 1, vol. 28, part 1, 355-356. This source is referred to hereafter as OR.


[2] OR, series 1, vol. 28, part 1, 356; Samuel P. Bates, “Seventy-Sixth Regiment,” in History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65 (Harrisburg, PA: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869), vol. 2, 946.


[3] OR, series 1, vol. 28, part 1, 356.


[4] “Assault on Fort Wagner,” American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/maps/assault-fort-wagner; Q.A. Gillmore to G.W. Cullum, “Report of Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, U.S. Army, commanding Department of the South, with congratulatory orders,” Feb. 28, 1864, in OR, series 1, vol. 28, part 1, 16.


[5] Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, vol. 2, 946-947; Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964; reprint, 2013), 483-484.


[6] Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, vol. 2, 947; “The Battle of Fort Wagner,” American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/fort-wagner.


[7] Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, vol. 2, 949.


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