54th New York Infantry Regiment's Civil War Historical Sketch
Taken from Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg (New York at Gettysburg) by the New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902.
This regiment, consisting exclusively of Germans, many of whom had seen service in their, native land, or, had already served three months under President Lincoln's first call for volunteers, was recruited by Col. Eugene E. Kozlay, during the summer of 1861, in New York City, as the " Black Rifles." They were uniformed in black and silver like the regiment after which they were named, " Lutzow's Schwarzer Jaeger," and carried besides the Stars and Stripes, a black flag embroidered in silver with a skull and crossbones, which, however, was not sanctioned by the authorities; and, therefore, was afterwards discarded.
The regiment received its numerical designation of Fifty-fourth New York Volunteers on October 15, 1861, and was mustered into the United States service at the old United States Arsenal in Hudson City, N. J., between September 5th and October 16th. On October 29th, it left for Washington, D. C, camping at Bladensburg, north of the city, as part of the Provisional Brigade, Casey's Division, Army of the Potomac, until, on December 1st, it was ordered to cross the Potomac, and was assigned to Steinwehr's Brigade, Blenker's Division, all composed of Germans, at Hunter's Chapel, Va.
The winter of 1861-62 was devoted to perfecting the men in the regimental, brigade, and division drill, and in building fortifications and doing picket duty on the outposts. In April, 1862, it broke camp and, being assigned to the First Brigade, same Division, Mountain Department, left for Western Virginia.
Crossing the Blue Ridge, it reached the Shenandoah River, swollen to the overflowing of its banks by melting snows. It was crossed under great difficulties on a raft constructed out of an old barn. The forces of the current made the passage very dangerous. One of the first companies to cross, belonging to Colonel Bohlen's Pennsylvania regiment, was drowned, every man, from the overweighting of the flimsy structure, before the horrow-stricken eyes of comrades unable to help.
The regiment went into camp at Winchester, Va., where the division was inspected by General Rosecrans and reuniformed. The Confederate troops, under General Jackson, were followed through West Virginia and along the Shenandoah; they were caught up with, and the Battle of Cross Keys was fought June 8, 1862. The casualties in the regiment were 2 killed and 4 wounded.
Returning to Mount Jackson, the regiment was assigned on June 26th to the Second Brigade, Third Division, First Corps, Army of Virginia, under Gen. Franz Sigel, afterwards taking part in the engagement of Fox's Ford, Sulphur Springs, and Waterloo Bridge, and finally at Second Bull Run on August 29th, 3Oth, and 31st. On the morning of the 29th of August, the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Ashby commanding, attacked the enemy, who were intrenched behind an unfinished railroad embankment at Groveton, the brigade being commanded by Gen. Carl Schurz. The regiment fought bravely against superior forces until the division was relieved by General Birney, of Gen. Phil. Kearny's Division, Third Army Corps. The first color bearer of the regiment was left, severely wounded, on the field. On August 30th, at Bull Run, it was engaged repeatedly until the army retreated towards Centreville. The casualties during the three days' fighting were as follows:
Officers: 2 Killed; 8 Wounded
Enlisted men: 16 Killed; 94 Wounded; 41 Missing
Total: 18 Killed; 102 Wounded; 41 Missing
Making a total of 161.
On September 12, 1862, the regiment was assigned to the First Brigade, First Division, Eleventh Corps, Gen. O. O. Howard commanding. It took part in the Battle of Chancellorsville, May I and 3, 1863, holding, under General Von Gilsa, the extreme right of the Eleventh Corps. The conflict was a fierce one, and several times its flag was almost captured, three color bearers being successively seriously wounded. It was owing to the bravery of Capt. Ed. Wertheimer and Lieut. Julius Hohmann that " Old Glory" was ultimately saved. The regiment had seen from the first that the enemy was massing his troops on the Federal right, evidently intending to outflank us, which fact was repeatedly brought to the notice of headquarters without receiving any attention there. The regiment, however, held its own until almost surrounded by the enemy, when, to avoid capture, it fell back, bravely fighting. The casualties were, I killed, 24 wounded, and 17 missing; a total of 42.
On July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the regiment again held the extreme right of the Eleventh Corps under General Barlow, the right resting on Rock Creek near the bridge on the Harrisburg Road. The First Day's Battle having been lost, the regiment retreated with the Eleventh Corps through the village of Gettysburg, constantly fighting, and, when their ammunition was exhausted, quite a number, including four officers, were taken prisoners in the village. The rest retreated and came to a stand at Cemetery Hill, where they were assigned to the duty of protecting the artillery, and were placed at the foot of the eastern slope near a stone wall intersecting the Gulp's Hill Road, forming the extreme right of the Eleventh Corps. Several of the men were wounded and others killed, while going for water to a spring in front of them, by a rebel sharpshooter hidden in a tree, who was finally brought down by a bullet from one of the Fifty-fourth.
Towards the evening of July 2d an attack was made by the enemy along the whole line of the Eleventh Corps, with the intention of capturing the batteries on top of the hill. Among the first killed was the color bearer, Sergt. Henry Michel. Two successive color bearers were severely wounded, and the remnant of the regiment was pushed up the hill, close to the Cemetery. Another regiment coming to the relief of the exhausted Fifty-fourth, it made a stand, assumed the aggressive and took part in a hand-to-hand fight, finally driving back the enemy and taking up again its old position. There were 8 enlisted men killed, 2 officers and 44 enlisted men wounded, and 4 officers and 44 enlisted men missing; total, 102.
This battle ends the connection- of the regiment with the Army of the Potomac. Having been assigned to the Department of the South, it marched through Virginia to Alexandria; embarked for South Carolina, and arrived at Folly Island in front of Charleston, August 9, 1863. It was assigned to the First Brigade, of Gordon's Division, Tenth Corps. It took part in the siege of Fort Wagner, and also in the night attack on Fort Sumter, September 8th. It passed the rest of the time in building fortifications, patrolling, and recon-noitering on the surrounding islands.
On November 17th, a singing society was organized in the regiment, which was named the " Theodor Koerner Liedertafel," after Germany's soldier poet.
This society still exists in a flourishing condition, and has accompanied the Fifty-fourth Veteran Association to Gettysburg three times. It assisted at the laying of the corner stone of the beautiful regimental monument in 1888; was at the dedication of the finished work in 1890, and helped to celebrate the union of the " Blue and Gray " in 1893.
The regiment took part in various engagements under General Schimmel-fennig and Lieut. Col. Bankson T. Morgan, at Seabrook, John's Island, Febru-ary 9 and 11, 1864; at James' Island, July 1st and 6th, where 3 officers and 17 men were wounded, and the regiment was highly complimented in general orders by General Schimmelfennig. In an engagement on October 24th, I officer and 3 enlisted men were wounded. In the engagement of February 10, 1865, on James' Island, 2 officers and 7 enlisted men were wounded, and at Santee River, on February 27th, 1 officer and 6 enlisted men were wounded, making a loss, in the South Carolina campaign, of 7 officers and 33 enlisted men.
It should have been stated that, in 1864, on the expiration of the term for which they had originally enlisted, three years, the men enthusiastically re-enlisted for the war.
In March, 1865, the Fifty-fourth entered Charleston, S. C., and on June 22d, its depleted ranks were strengthened by the consolidation with it of those men not mustered out from the One hundred and twenty-seventh and One hun-dred and fifty-seventh New York Volunteers.
The total casualties of the Fifty-fourth Regiment New York Volunteers during the war, were:
Taken prisoners 4
After the Fall of Charleston the regiment was detailed in detachments for duty in the Freedman's Bureau throughout South Carolina, with headquarters at Orangeburg, until the beginning of April, 1866, when it was ordered to Hart's Island, New York Harbor, and there mustered out of the service of the United States, April 14, 1866.
A goodly number of the regiment are still living scattered throughout the United States and also Germany. There is a flourishing veteran organization, consisting of 54 members,, with headquarters in New York City, who regularly hold their annual reunion on the anniversary of their departure for the seat of war in 1861, and still taking a lively interest in everything connected with that great and terrible conflict, strive to imbue their own children and the rising generation with the patriotic enthusiasm that impelled the freedom-loving Germans to offer their all to the cause of their adopted country.