Local group reenacts the glory of the black Union Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts 

Freedom Fighters

From left: Ernest Parks, Betty Brown, James Brown, Marlene Lemon, Robert Beavers, and Joseph McGill

Jonathan Boncek

From left: Ernest Parks, Betty Brown, James Brown, Marlene Lemon, Robert Beavers, and Joseph McGill

"We'll get you, Johnny Reb!" Joseph McGill snarls, baring his teeth as he prepares to storm Battery Wagner.

When it comes to reenacting the events of the Civil War in Charleston during July of 1863, McGill is as about as serious as serious gets. He and his fellow Union soldiers, each one depicting members of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — one of the first African-American units to engage in combat for the United States — have been planning this week's sesquicentennial events for over a year. On July 16, they will reenact the Battle of Grimball's Landing on Sol Legare Island and the assault on Morris Island's Battery Wagner two days later.

McGill wasn't always a fan of Civil War reenactments. "I used to see Confederate reenactors and I would resent what they were doing," he says, recalling his days as a ranger with the National Park Service at Fort Sumter. "They were reenacting a part of history that wasn't really fair to my ancestors."

Over time, McGill got to know a handful of rebel reenactors on an individual basis, and he came to understand their reasons behind keeping that history alive. "They tried to convince me to be a Confederate reenactor, but I wasn't really feeling that," McGill says.

But then Glory was released. The 1989 movie starred Denzel Washington as a soldier and Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Shaw, the officer who led the 54th Massachusetts Regiment into battle. Their heroic actions at Battery Wagner inspired thousands of African-American soldiers to enlist and helped turn the tide of the war.

"After seeing that movie, I asked, 'Why didn't I know this before now?'" says McGill. "There I was, a park ranger. That kind of information should be readily available to me."

Inspired by the previously untold stories of African-American soldiers fighting in the Civil War, McGill decided to form a group of reenactors in Charleston to depict and honor the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts. Participants like former Charleston police chief Reuben Greenberg helped to promote the cause, and the regiment's numbers grew quickly. But two decades later, the number of reenactors has dwindled to a dedicated dozen, with twice that many on the official books as members. But this week, Charleston's 54th reenactors — identified as Company I (the group that led the charge on the night of July 18, 1863) — will see their ranks swell to over 100 as other African-American reenactor groups will be in town for eight days of commemorations and events.

click to enlarge Once housed in the Statue of LIberty, this diorama on display at Sol Legare portrays the 54th Massachusetts in action - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Once housed in the Statue of LIberty, this diorama on display at Sol Legare portrays the 54th Massachusetts in action

"This week, we'll be telling the stories of what these men did on these particular days 150 years ago," says McGill, who now serves as a field officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "There was an enemy, and they fought for things too, and there's an opportunity to tell their part of the story, but for so long, the stories of the 200,000 African-American soldiers who served have not been told. Right now, we've got the stage, we've got the microphone, and we're going to use it."

 On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina's leaders gathered in Charleston to officially sever ties with the United States, making the Palmetto State the first to secede. Three weeks later on January 9, a federal supply ship, Star of the West, entered Charleston Harbor to fortify Fort Sumter, the Union's only stronghold in Charleston after Forts Moultrie and Johnson were seized by the state. The ship came under fire from Citadel cadets stationed on Morris Island, effectively marking the first shots of the Civil War. The Union soldiers held their ground at Sumter until April 12, when the Confederates — now organized into a true army — began shelling the fort, finally forcing its evacuation.

Due to both its status as a necessary port for the South and those early provocations, capturing Charleston became a concerted focus of the Union. "After secession and the first shots, Charleston was very important from a symbolic standpoint," explains Joshua Haugh, a Citadel employee and Union reenactor.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

Randy Burbage, a Confederate reenactor with the 10th S.C. Volunteer Infantry, agrees. "Charleston was one of those lifelines to the Confederacy, along with Wilmington," he says. "They needed to keep these ports open."

In June 1862, the North attempted to take Charleston by land but were beaten handily by the rebels on James Island in the Battle of Secessionville. Acknowledging that further ground attacks would be deadly and fruitless, the Union moved its attention to capturing the Confederate-held Battery Wagner on Morris Island where they could station cannons within firing range of the Charleston peninsula.

A first attempt at taking Wagner came a year later, on July 10, 1863, when the Union crossed Lighthouse Inlet from their staging camps on Folly Island (now Folly Beach) and marched to the fort on Morris Island's north end. At dawn the following day, they encountered a fort placed snugly between the marsh and the ocean, forcing a narrow approach fortified with a moat featuring underwater spikes while 1,770 Confederate soldiers rained down bullets from above. Again the Union forces were defeated, suffering 339 casualties to the Confederate's 12.

Realizing that any successful attempt to take Wagner would require the virtual suicide of the front-line troops, the Union reorganized its plan of attack and sent in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to front the second assault on July 18. The African-American troops had only arrived in Charleston days before, immediately seeing action on July 16 at Sol Legare Island in the Battle of Grimball's Landing, a skirmish designed to distract the Confederate troops from the second advance on Wagner.

"They held off the enemy so that the other soldiers could retreat in an orderly fashion. It provided a first chance to prove to themselves and their commanders that they could be soldiers," McGill says, noting that many of the 54th's men were educated and born free, choosing to serve of their own accord.

After ferrying from Sol Legare to Folly and then marching the length of the island, the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts went almost immediately into battle on Morris Island at 7:45 p.m., with no more than a few hours of sleep.

During the chaos that ensued, a total of 246 Union soldiers were killed, in addition to 880 wounded and 389 captured. Forty percent of the men of the 54th became casualties of the initial assault. Many of the captured were held at the Old City Jail or transported to Florence, S.C., where poor prison conditions claimed even more lives.

In the grand scheme of Civil War history, the events on Morris Island were relatively minor in comparison to the other battles of July 1863 — Gettysburg and Vicksburg, for example — and they were temporary failures for the Union, who would not claim Battery Wagner until it fell three months later after an extended siege. Nonetheless, these South Carolina battles came at a pivotal point in the war, and at a time when most white Americans, both Yankee and rebel, doubted the capabilities of African-Americans.

"The word spread that there were black soldiers fighting in South Carolina, and I think that gave hope to African Americans — freed and slaves," says Marlene Lemon, a reenactor with the 54th and a U.S. Navy veteran and history teacher at Rollings Middle School of the Arts in Summerville. She speaks of how black children grow up today feeling less disenfranchised than their parents and grandparents did, tracing the change back to the valor of the 54th Massachusetts on Morris Island.

Fellow reenactor and Sol Legare resident James Brown makes the connection directly: "I look at the soldiers we represent as the first civil rights workers," he states. "Look what they came from, slavery. You joined the war and you were probably going to get killed, or you could die being a slave."

But, Brown points out, if you fought, at least you died with hope.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

 Ernest Parks has garnered plenty of attention for his role in the restoration of the Seashore Farmers' Lodge on Sol Legare Road into a museum and community center, but it was the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts that helped him reconnect with his Gullah-Geechee roots. After attending a reenactment on Morris Island 10 years ago, he found himself enthralled by the role his home had played in our national history.

"We all know that the first shot that was heard around the world to start the Civil War happened in Charleston, but when I found out that the first time a black man had the opportunity to fight for the Union was here on Sol Legare, I said, 'Wow-wee man, I got to do it,'" Parks says. He responded to a flyer posted by McGill and was soon marching in a blue jacket and wool pants.

Parks passed the reenactment bug to his neighbor James Brown, who showed up for his first battle without a hat. They laugh when recounting how he improvised and used a "doo-rag" to appear like he was a soldier with a head wound.

Today, the duo are the primary storytellers among the Charleston group, and their skills will be on display throughout the week. On Monday, the public is invited to the Seashore Farmers' Lodge on Sol Legare for a screening of Glory at 9 p.m., projected outside on the lawn, amidst an encampment of reenactors from around the country.

The following day, the Battle of Grimball's Landing will be remembered with musket drills, storytelling, and Gullah food prepared throughout the day. On Thursday — the anniversary of the assault on Battery Wagner — the African-American reenactors will join the larger encampments at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island (Confederates inside, Union troops on the lawn), before collectively boarding boats to Morris Island, where they will commemorate the hundreds of men who died fighting there.

Finally, on Friday and Saturday evenings, the men of the 54th Massachusetts will relocate to the Old City Jail, where they'll continue to tell stories and present living history, before spending each night sleeping inside to honor the men who were imprisoned there after the assault.

Because a full-scale reenactment on Morris Island is not feasible, the annual Siege of Charleston reenactment at Boone Hall this November will depict the attack on Wagner instead of the Battle of Secessionville. Moving forward, the two battles will alternate years, rather than having Charleston's primary reenactment always result in a victory for the South.

"We want to help tell this story that needs to be told," says Burbage, the Confederate reenactor.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

Part of that, he says, is not forgetting the sacrifices of the rebel troops. "There was no water at Battery Wagner apart from what was brought over from Charleston, and food rations often arrived spoiled," he says. "The Confederate soldiers were under constant bombardment from Folly Island and further south on Morris. They never got any sleep, and it was terribly hot. One man who came back wrote that, 'The preachers can talk about going to hell, but I've been to hell. I've been to Battery Wagner, and I'm not afraid of what the preachers say anymore.' "

Those sorts of tales remind reenactors that despite the fun and camaraderie they enjoy depicting these events in 2013, the truth remains that the Civil War was a bitter, ugly time in Charleston and across America.

Still, the question persists: Why continue to rehash a terrible time in our nation's history, rather than let it be forgotten?

McGill puts it into perspective by considering the Civil War centennial in the 1960s when much of white Charleston celebrated on the Battery just as they did when the first shots rang out across the Harbor in 1861. "At the centennial, African Americans were still fighting for our own rights," he says.

Robert Beavers, an epidemiologist and local reenactor with the 54th, recalls showing up for a new job at New Mexico State University and being called the N-word on his first day of work by a white colleague who felt that African Americans shouldn't be scientists. Today, Beavers — a fourth generation descendant of Robert Smalls, a former slave who famously commandeered a ship in Charleston Harbor and sailed to freedom — fights remnants of that bigoted attitude through his work as a reenactor. When he puts on his uniform, children suddenly pay close attention to his stories. He shows them his real wooden leg, but replaces his own story with one of losing it while running away from slavery to join the Union army.

Likewise, Parks often asks young people if they can run a long distance, watching their hands shoot into the air. He then hands a boy or girl his musket and tells them to take a lap; they're quickly burdened by the weight. "And that's with no canteen or backpack," he tells them. "Who can run from South Carolina to New York? Who can do that running only at night, with dogs chasing you, when you're hungry, and you have to keep the baby quiet from the paddy rollers? That's what our forebears did for us to get to this point today."

For more information, visit massachusetts54charlestonsc.com. For a complete list of programs and talks by notable historians offered by the National Park Service and the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, visit fortsumtertrust.org.

Comments (8)

Showing 1-8 of 8

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-8 of 8

Add a comment

Classified Listings
Most Viewed

Powered by Foundation   © Copyright 2016, Charleston City Paper   RSS