The Gallant Charge of the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment
Currier & Ives, The Gallant Charge of the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment, 1863, hand-colored lithograph, 8 1/4 × 12 1/2 in. (20.7 × 31.6 cm). Boston Athenaeum, Gift of Raymond Wilkins, 1944
Images of the Civil War reached the general public chiefly through artists’ illustrations in news journals like Harper’s Weekly or commemorative prints that could be purchased individually. Although photographers like Mathew Brady took pictures of soldiers, camps, and battlefields strewn with corpses, the cumbersome equipment and long exposure times required by the medium made it unsuitable for recording the action of combat. Photography was relatively novel at the time, and the grim realities of war that it captured may have been shocking for civilians whose experience of war was limited to military parades and related pageantry.
The New York–based firm Currier & Ives, founded by Nathaniel T. Currier in partnership with James Merritt Ives in 1857, is most familiar for its illustrations of American life, scenery, and religious themes that were sold inexpensively to a broad audience at the time. Currier & Ives also was among the first printmakers to publish imagery related to the Civil War. Prints tended to emphasize the patriotism, sacrifice, and righteousness of the Union cause.
Shortly after the assault on Fort Wagner, Currier & Ives released this print showing the 54th Massachusetts charging over the ramparts of Fort Wagner and engaging the Confederate phalanx with rifles, bayonets, and hand-to-hand combat. The artist emphasized the fatally wounded, collapsing figure of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw along with then-private William H. Carney determinedly bearing the national flag aloft. Both men are shown just as they reached the top of the thirty-foot-high sandbagged defenses of the Confederate-held fort. They command the viewer’s attention through their placement at the apex of the pyramidal shape formed by the advancing Union troops, their blue-uniformed bodies set off against white drifts of gun smoke.
Members of the 54th Massachusetts proved their bravery at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, knowing that their performance would be a benchmark against which all black troops would be judged. Their actions under fire would determine whether black troops would continue to be recruited and trained for combat. By the war’s end roughly 190,000 African Americans fought for the Union. President Lincoln believed that the contribution of black soldiers marked a critical turning point in the war, one that eventually led to a Union victory—a view subsequently echoed by Civil War historians. The Currier & Ives print, published and marketed in 1863, helped confirm the courage of the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts—and thus of black troops—in public opinion.