War Changes Things

One night in 1863, a local regiment put the goals of the Civil War into practice.

The 97th Pennsylvania Volunteers, pictured at a post-war reunion.War makes people do things they wouldn’t do otherwise—and not all of those things are unspeakable. In 1863, the men of the 97th Pennsylvania Volunteers, a regiment raised in Chester and Delaware counties, risked their lives for others in danger. The 97th was white. The others, wounded survivors of the 54th Massachusetts regiment depicted in the Oscar-winning 1989 film Glory, were black.

For that fact alone, the troops of the 54th were in particular danger as they lay bleeding in front of the Confederate Fort Wagner. Union Brig. Gen. Thomas G. Stevenson framed the issue plainly. “You know how much harder they will fare at the hands of the enemy than white men,” he told the men of the 97th.

So the Pennsylvanians worked through the night, under fire, to get the 54th’s wounded into ambulances.

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Blacks in Pennsylvania also had it harder than whites. But until that moment in the siege of Charleston, S.C., few in the 97th had likely ever been personally called upon to act on their behalf.

The 97th was raised primarily by Henry R. Guss, an entrepreneur who had been active in the local militia since he joined the National Guards of West Chester at the age of 21. In civilian life, Guss operated a tavern, the Green Tree Hotel, from 1854 to 1892, and a brickyard. He also seems to have been a man who (at least for his time) was without obvious racial prejudice. In announcing his 1907 death, the Daily Local News reported that “many colored men and their families, who formerly were in the employ of Gen. Guss, or who knew him personally, will likely call, and they will be welcome.”

Typical rapport between employer and employee was unusual in a state where blacks were severely handicapped by prejudice. Though it was a “free” state, Pennsylvania had a constitution that denied blacks the right to vote. Official discrimination sanctioned private prejudice and, over time, blacks lost access to artisan and professional jobs. Thereafter, most black men here could find jobs only as day laborers.

Guss was promoted to lieutenant in 1854 and to captain five years later. In 1861, he was commissioned as a colonel, with authority to enlist men willing to fight for the duration of the war. He enlisted 950. Three of the regiment’s 11 companies—the Concordville Rifles, the Broomall Guards and the Brooke Guards—signed up in Delaware County, with the remaining eight companies from Chester County. But the men themselves came from everywhere. The largest contingent—143 men—was from West Chester. Coatesville was second with 45.

Others volunteered from Philadelphia, along with Berks, Lancaster, York and Montgomery counties. Enlistees also came from Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, and included Irish, German and Swiss immigrants.

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One third were farmers. Others were carpenters and blacksmiths, and many were common laborers. The average age was 22, but the drummer boy was 12. “We will never know what motivated each of these men to volunteer,” wrote historian Keith Doms. “It is likely that many volunteered as a patriotic act. For others, it was a chance for a grand adventure.”

The regiment trained at Camp Wayne, now part of the West Chester University campus, and accepted the adoration of the town. Friends of Company C brought 101 pairs of socks. Company A was deluged with edibles. A Methodist minister brought Bibles. The governor visited to present the regiment’s official flag. In November, when the 97th marched to the West Chester depot, “the murmur of thousands of voices mingled in last adieus found at length its culmination, breaking forth in hearty cheers for the boys in blue,” according to regimental historian (and dentist) Isaiah Price.

In Georgia, the 97th helped capture Fort Pulaski; in Florida, it occupied Jacksonville and St. Augustine. The regiment was also involved in an unsuccessful attempt to capture Charleston by land in June 1862, before joining hundreds of other Union regiments in continual skirmishing around the city. In one such engagement, Price recalled Guss riding back and forth in front of his men, urging them to remain steady. “His example was electric in its effect,” wrote Price, “for the men were rendered cool and brave by the coolness and bravery of their commander himself, in the thickest of the danger.”

The men of the 54th, by contrast, had to fight for the right to defend the Union. Despite intense pressure from both black leaders and abolitionists who thought allowing blacks to serve would cement their right to liberty, Washington did not finally authorize such enlistments until January 1863. And then the Lincoln administration insulted its new black troops by deciding that—despite initial promises—black troops would be paid only $7 per month ($10, minus $3 for clothing).

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White troops, meanwhile, earned $13 and did not have to pay for their uniforms. In protest, the 54th refused for 18 months to accept any pay until—after many battles and casualties—Congress passed an “equalization” law. “We should not have it said that knowing our rights, we did not stand up for them,” asserted Sgt. William Gray.

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The regiment totaled 1,100 men. Some came from communities of fugitive slaves in Canada, but most were free men. Others originated from New York and Pennsylvania. The 54th’s white officers were selected from the families of wealthy abolitionists who could be counted on to finance the outfitting of such troops. One backer, ship chandler George Stearns, had also helped fund John Brown.

Among the enlistees were two sons of Fredrick Douglas who, in a newspaper editorial, called the nation’s black men to arms. “We can get at the throat of treason and slavery through the state of Massachusetts,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, in May 1863, most Bostonians who watched were impressed as Col. Robert Gould Shaw marched the 54th down Beacon Street to the strains of “John Brown’s Body”—a scene now memorialized in bronze on Boston Common. Exceptions were the street thugs who assaulted the rear of the column as it boarded the steamer that took the 54th south.

By July, both the 97th and 54th regiments were among three brigades (14 regiments) facing Battery Wagner, a Confederate fort erected to defend Charleston. The 54th was among six regiments in a brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. George Strong; the 97th was one of four regiments in a brigade led by Stevenson. Another four regiments were led by Col. Haldimand Putnam.

Battery Wagner measured 100-by-250 yards and was located on a flat beach 100 yards from the Atlantic, with a moat in its front and a swamp in its rear. Constructed of palmetto logs and sandbags, it was defended by 1,700 soldiers and 14 cannons. Union ships approaching Charleston would be caught between Wagner and the rebel-occupied Fort Sumter in the harbor. Wagner had to go.

Somehow, the Union command decided that infantry could overwhelm the fort. Putnam called it suicidal, remarking to a fellow officer, “We are going into Wagner like a flock of sheep.” But Strong agreed with the strategy and, perhaps for that reason, his brigade was chosen to lead the attack. Strong put the 54th in front.

On July 18, Union shops bombarded Wagner all day. The expectation was that this would leave the fort so shattered—and the Confederates so dazed—that a night infantry attack would be successful. But the fort wasn’t badly damaged, and Wagner’s garrison had been well sheltered. As night fell, Shaw told his men, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

Casualties in the 54th were 42 percent. “The rebs withheld their fire until we reached within 50 yards of the work,” wrote George E. Stephens, the 54th’s black historian, “when jets of flame darted forth from every corner and embrasure.” Of the 600 members of the regiment who participated in the attack, 54 were killed or received mortal injuries. Another 52 were missing, and 149 were left wounded, many of them lying on the sand around the rebel fort.

White troops coming up behind the 54th also suffered heavy casualties. Shaw died on Wagner’s parapet and was later reported by the rebels to have been buried facedown “with his n—ers.” Outraged at having to fight blacks, the Confederates bayoneted some captured soldiers and refused a truce.

Meanwhile, the 97th and Stevenson’s brigade had waited in reserve to back up the attack, if it proved successful. When it became plain that that wouldn’t be necessary, Stevenson called for three 97th companies—led by Guss, Capt. Dewitt Lewis (a West Chester carpenter) and Lt. Col. A.P. Duer, a West Point graduate who later served as Chester County sheriff—to give covering fire. Four other companies stacked arms and gathered the wounded.

Ironically, Stevenson, a Massachusetts officer, had publicly opposed enlisting or serving with blacks. But his promotion to brigadier was endorsed by Massachusetts abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner, and Stevenson later said that blacks were good soldiers. He was killed the next year at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

“The search for the wounded,” wrote Price, “was pushed to the moat and slopes of the fort by our men, who lay on the ground and crept along under cover of darkness, listening for the groans of the wounded as a guide to find them.” Stevenson was “particularly anxious that every wounded colored soldier should be brought off,” wrote Price.

Not all were. Some drowned when the tide came in.

Throughout, Confederate snipers and artillery were active. According to Price, this assault so concerned the ambulance drivers (not from the 97th) “as to cause them to start off their teams at a run as soon as their load of wounded soldiers was ready, regardless of the piercing cries of the poor sufferers.” An officer of the 97th, presumably Guss, stopped this by putting a guard on each ambulance with orders to shoot the driver if he broke out of a walk.

“It was a sad and anxious night’s work,” wrote Price, “never to be forgotten by those engaged in bearing off the fallen ones from that thickly strewn field.”

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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