Every year, Joseph McGill and his comrades return to the island where the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry secured its place in American history.
They’ll do so again Wednesday afternoon, traveling on three boats to Cummings Point on Morris Island, where the regiment assaulted Confederate Battery Wagner.
Although the July 18, 1863, lead assault by the 54th was not a tactical success – although the damaged fort guarding Charleston, S.C., held on for just two more months – it has come to stand for so much more.
“You have to look at the social aspect of it and what it meant to the African-American race and this nation,” said McGill, member of Company I, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment. “There were doubts on the ability of these men to actually be soldiers. These men did prove they could be soldiers.”
The 54th, made famous in the 1989 film “Glory,” is undoubtedly the most famous U.S. Colored Troops unit in the war.
“It helped to convince me African-Americans had a major role in the Civil War,” McGill, a former Fort Sumter park ranger, said of “Glory,” which starred Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick.
Company I, with about 15 active members, on Wednesday will host members of other 54th re-enacting units from along the East Coast.
Battery Wagner – which guarded the southern approach to Charleston Harbor -- is long gone, a victim of erosion. The beachhead fort and remains of those killed in the assaults were washed out to sea.
About 280 of the 600 charging 54th soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Col. Robert Gould Shaw was among those killed.
The boats, carrying re-enactors and spectators, will travel from three locations to Cummings Point. Participants will disembark for the 3:30 p.m. ceremony.
A wreath will be placed and members of the 54th will fire a salute.
McGill said owners of private boats are welcome to attend the event.
Also Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fort Moultrie, on the north end of the Charleston harbor, will sponsor events honoring the 54th’s service.
A special Junior Ranger program, which can be completed in less than an hour, will focus on the role of the 200,000 men in the U.S. Colored Troops. Children who complete the program will earn a special patch.
At 2 p.m., scholar and researcher Russell Horres will lead a free discussion in the visitor center.
“It is a fun way to engage them to learn about history,” Chief Ranger Dawn Davis said of the program for youth, geared to those between the ages of 4 and 12. Teens also can participate.
Davis told the Picket she and McGill’s group will soon start drawing up plans to mark Battery Wagner’s 150th anniversary next year.
“It’s an integral part to the story. It’s part of what we talk to on a daily basis,” she told the Picket.
The 54th’s bravery in Charleston inspired more African-Americans to join the Union army and Navy “It proved that they would stand up and fight their freedom,” Davis said.
McGill said African-Americans are playing a larger role than in the 1961-1965 Civil War centennial. Fifty years ago, African-Americans were engaged in a different fight: civil rights.
“There was not a whole time to commemorate a war that should have given us those rights,” said McGill.
Civil War scholarship has improved, he said, and colleges are telling the story that “Glory” helped along.
“We are a little more receptive to talking about this institution of slavery and not sugarcoating and falsifying information about it,” McGill said.
Some members of the 54th taking part in the Morris Island ceremony may try to get over to Fort Moultrie at some point Wednesday.
“We don’t just put these uniforms on for show,” McGill told the Picket. “We are obligated to make sure the story of these guys is told and not forgotten. That is not relegated to a footnote of history. What those guys did on the island was very important to not only African-American history, but to American history.”
For more information on the Morris Island event, and to learn whether any boat seats are available, contact Joe McGill at 843-408-7727. Illustration assault, courtesy of Library of Congress; Morris Island photo, courtesy of Joseph McGill; Fort Moultrie photo, courtesy of the National Park Service
• More information about Fort Moultrie
• History Channel's page on the 54th