A House Divided

A print depicting the attack on Fort Wagner
Photo caption

Robert Gould Shaw is killed as he leads the 54th, his all-black regiment, in an attack on Fort Wagner in Charleston

Creative Commons

(February 10, 2014)

When war broke out between the Union and the Confederacy, large numbers of African-Americans sought their chance to fight for freedom.

Fewer than 40 days after Lincoln’s inauguration, rebels in Charleston, South Carolina, assaulted and took Ft. Sumter, an act that started the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history.

Almost immediately, black Americans rushed to enlist but full participation was delayed until 1863, when Lincoln issued both the Emancipation Proclamation and an order to allow blacks to join the Union Army. Eventually more than 200,000 African-Americans signed up, including the men of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment – an all-black infantry unit led by Robert Gould Shaw, the son of abolitionists.

The 54th was quickly ferried to South Carolina to participate in some of the most brutal skirmishes of the war.  Shaw and more than one-third of his unit were killed in attempts to take Charleston’s Ft. Wagner. The 54th’s Sgt. William Carney – born a slave in Virginia – was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and determination in battle.  Find out more about the 54th and the thousands of other African-Americans who helped fight to re-unite the nation and end human bondage in America at EDSITEment, the National Endowment for the Humanities' educational website.