Most people have seen the movie “Glory” which depicts African American soldiers, many former slaves, who fought in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The movie’s climax presents the dramatic charge against the Confederate held Fort Wagner on Morris Island. Indeed, the island was one of many forts that protected Charleston. You can watch a short clip of this movie here:
Clad in his faded blue uniform, Joe McGill led our group aboard a charter boat to Morris sland which has fallen victim to massive erosion over the years. The exact spot of the battle has been swept away by the Atlantic Ocean but part of the 54th’s approach may still be there. Regardless, enough of the beach exists to provide excellent means by which to imagine the battle. Especially, if you go there with Joe who spoke in character as a member of the 54th and described how that soldier fought for his nation and African American freedom. This boat adventure combined with our experience at the Old Charleston Jail, where members of the 54th were incarcerated as prisoners after this failed attack made the battle all the more real and familiar. Just an amazing experience.
We then boarded a ferry that sailed us to Fort Sumter. Again, another iconic Civil War site that our group was very excited to see. But it was information gleaned there that helped place the topic of slavery and theme of Hope further into focus. Slaves were held at Sumter and forced to rebuild the fort’s defenses during bombardment; dozens were killed during this extremely dangerous job. But it was the fact these slaves were held in “fox holes” or “hot boxes” on the side of Sumter that faces Morris Island that intrigued me the most. Jacob Stroyer, a slave who survived these harrowing conditions later wrote:
“The principal work of the negroes was to secure the top and other parts against the damage from the Union guns. . . The work could only be done at night, because, besides the bombardment from Fort Wagner, which was about a mile or little less from us, there were also sharp-shooters there who picked men off whenever they showed their heads on the rampart.”
At one point, perhaps a mile mile separated the 54th Massachusetts and their free African Americans on Morris Island from these poor slaves held in horrific conditions and forced to do incredibly dangerous work at Sumter. Joe has been planning on portraying and interpreting one of these slaves inside Sumter and our discussion of this proximity of freedom and slavery and the themes of hope and despair will surely enter into his script.