SULLIVANS ISLAND — Dozens of Civil War re-enactors gathered Thursday to commemorate the 150th anniversary of a famed attack by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – a battle in South Carolina that showed the world black soldiers could fight and was chronicled in the movie “Glory.”
Re-enactors portraying members of the black Union regiment, as well as Confederate counterparts defending Battery Wagner in Charleston Harbor, planned to travel Thursday afternoon by boat to Morris Island, site of the battle, to lay a wreath and fire a salute.
Speeches and Civil War period music also were planned on nearby Sullivans Island – an inhabited barrier island near the harbor entrance – about the time of the evening attack 150 years ago. Luminaries were to be lit by nightfall in memory of the dead.
The 54th was raised in Boston and of the 600 black troops who bravely charged Battery Wagner, 218 were killed, wounded or captured in fierce fighting. The 54th later served in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida before returning to Massachusetts at war’s end.
“This is probably the most significant anniversary of the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War,” said Walter Sanderson, a re-enactor from Upper Marlboro, Md.
“It was a primary test for African-American troops in a very difficult assault. They proved themselves to be a quality regiment under the most severe duress.”
Usually, there are about a dozen black re-enactors who make the trip each year. This year, more than 50 black re-enactors and several dozen Confederate re-enactors were gathering, some from such distant states as California.
“Going out on that island has special meaning today,” said Joe McGill, a black Charleston re-enactor who makes the journey every July 18.
The attack was part of an unsuccessful campaign by federal forces to capture Charleston, the city where the Civil War began in 1861 with a bombardment of federally held Fort Sumter. The Confederates would hold Charleston until late in the war, when they abandoned it as Union troops moved across South Carolina further to the west.
While the Battery Wagner attack was unsuccessful, the valor of the black troops dispelled the thought – common in both the North and the South early in the war -- that blacks could not fight. It also encouraged the enlistment of another 200,000 black troops in the Union army.
“It’s just an honor to be here. The 54th proved that black troops could fight in a battle,” said Louis Carter of Richmond, Va. He said Battery Wagner and several earlier smaller fights involving black troops “disproved that stereotype that we would run.”
Leon Watkins of San Francisco carried the flag in the movie “Glory.”
A former Marine, he said “if this hadn’t happened here 150 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to help provide the blanket of security we all sleep under.”
“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.