July 20th, 1863
MY DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER:
Wednesday July 8th, our regiment left St. Helena Island for Folly Island, arriving there the next day, and were then ordered to land on James Island, which we did. On the upper end of James Island is a large rebel battery with 18 guns. After landing we threw out pickets to within two miles of the rebel fortification. We were permitted to do this in peace until last Thursday, 16th inst., when at four o’clock in the morning the rebels made an attack on our pickets, who were about 200 strong. We were attacked by a force of about 900. Our men fought like tigers; one sergeant killed five men by shooting and bayoneting. The rebels were held in check by our few men long enough to allow the 10th Conn[ecticut]. to escape being surrounded and captured, for which we received the highest praise from all parties who knew of it. This performance on our part earned for us the reputation of a fighting regiment.
Our loss in killed, wounded and missing was forty-five. That night we took, according to our officers, one of the hardest marches on record, through woods and marsh. The rebels we defeated and drove back in the morning. They, however, were reinforced by 14,000 men, we having only half a dozen regiments. So it was necessary for us to escape.
I cannot write in full, expecting every moment to be called into another fight. Suffice it to say we are now on Morris Island. Saturday night we made the most desperate charge of the war on Fort Wagner, losing in killed, wounded and missing in the assault, three hundred of our men. The splendid 54th is cut to pieces. All our officers with the exception of eight were either killed or wounded. Col. [Robert Gould] Shaw is a prisoner and wounded. Major [Edward N.] Hallowell is wounded in three places, Adj’t [Garth W.] James in two places. Serg’t [Robert J.] Simmons is killed, Nat[haniel]. Hurley (from Rochester) is missing, and a host of others.
I had my sword sheath blown away while on the parapet of the Fort. The grape and canister, shell and minnies swept us down like chaff, sill our men went on and on, and if we had been properly supported, we would have held the Fort, but the white troops could not be made to come up. The consequence was we had to fall back, dodging shells and other missiles.
If I have another opportunity, I will write more fully. Goodbye to all. If I die tonight I will not die a coward. Goodbye.
SOURCE: Donald Yacovone, Editor, Freedom's Journey: African American Voices of the Civil War, p. 108-9 which states this letter was published in Douglass’ Monthly, Rochester, New York, August 1863.