Lewis Douglass was a son of Frederick Douglass and a sergeant in the Union army’s Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry. The Fifty-fourth, led by its white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, scion of a prominent Boston family, was an elite black regiment. On July 18, 1863, the Fifty-fourth mounted a brave but hopeless attack against Fort Wagner, which guarded Charleston Harbor. Shaw and almost half the regiment were killed. African Americans had already proven themselves in Civil War battles, but the battle at Fort Wagner turned the public’s attention to the heroism of black soldiers. In this letter to the woman he later married, Douglass, still unaware of the dimensions of his regiment’s losses, described the battle.
MORRIS ISLAND. S. C. July 20
MY DEAR AMELIA: I have been in two fights, and am unhurt. I am about to go in another I believe to-night. Our men fought well on both occasions. The last was desperate we charged that terrible battery on Morris Island known as Fort Wagoner, and were repulsed with a loss of 3 killed and wounded. I escaped unhurt from amidst that perfect hail of shot and shell. It was terrible. I need not particularize the papers will give a better than I have time to give. My thoughts are with you often, you are as dear as ever, be good enough to remember it as I no doubt you will. As I said before we are on the eve of another fight and I am very busy and have just snatched a moment to write you. I must necessarily be brief. Should I fall in the next fight killed or wounded I hope to fall with my face to the foe.
If I survive I shall write you a long letter. DeForrest of your city is wounded George Washington is missing, Jacob Carter is missing, Chas Reason wounded Chas Whiting, Chas Creamer all wounded. The above are in hospital.
This regiment has established its reputation as a fighting regiment not a man flinched, though it was a trying time. Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use we had to retreat, which was a very hazardous undertaking. How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. My Dear girl I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I be killed. Remember if I die I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war. Good Bye to all Write soon Your own loving LEWIS
Source: Carter Woodson, The Mind of the Negro (Washington, D.C., 1926), 544.