With the new school year starting, I’ll be switching over to semi-monthly postings. My next series of posts will deal with the 54th New York Infantry, another of von Gilsa’s units present at Blocher’s Knoll and East Cemetery Hill during the battle of Gettysburg. Today’s post will introduce the regiment.
The 54th New York was another of the predominantly “German” regiments of which the 11th Corps was so well known. Organized by Eugene Kozlay, who became the regiment’s commanding officer, the 54th was originally intended to be a sharpshooting regiment. The War Department would not accept the regiment into service until 400 men were on the rolls. Therefore, while the regiment began accepting enlistments in June of 1861, it was not until the very end of August that orders were received to muster the regiment. The soldiers were mustered in between September 5 and October 16, 1861, and the regiment was made up of men mostly from Brooklyn and New York City. The 54th was alternatively known as the “Hiram Barney Rifles”, “Barney Black Rifles” or the “Schwarze Yaeger”. Hiram Barney was a Democrat, but was Lincoln’s appointment as collector of the port of New York. Colonel Kozlay notes in his regimental journal that Barney’s only connection to the regiment was that he presented a few flags to the officers. The inclusion of Barney’s name was merely at the request of Hamilton Bruce.
From October 1861 to April 1862, the 54th New York was stationed around Washington. At that time, they were transferred west to Fremont’s command near Strasburg, Virginia. In June 1862 the regiment participated in the battle of Cross Keys. Later that month, they were transferred into Pope’s Army of Virginia, this time under command of Franz Sigel. They skirmished at multiple Rappahannock crossings in the days leading up to 2nd Bull Run and were present at Groveton and 2nd Bull Run.
Like other 11th Corps regiments in von Gilsa’s command, they were present at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg; later posts will provide more details on this service. Camped near Hagerstown, Maryland, after Gettysburg, they were transferred to South Carolina in August 1863. They became part of the 10th Corps on Folly Island, South Carolina, and participated in the siege of Fort Wagner. In summer 1864, the 54th New York transferred to James Island until March, 1865, when they entered Charleston, South Carolina. The men stayed in South Carolina until April 1866, almost a year after hostilities were ended, serving on duty to the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The uniform of the 54th New York was black and silver, hence the name “Black Rifles” or “Schwarze Jaeger”. In fact, the regiment originally had a black flag with skull and crossbones but it was not approved of and was not used for long. What a sight that would have been in battle if authorized… Colonel Kozlay noted in his regimental journal that $300 was paid for an embroidered regimental flag, but I have yet to find any evidence as to whether it is the “pirate” flag or a subsequent more traditional regimental flag.
It is important to note that we tend to think of regiments such as the 54th New York as “German” regiments. I have found that, due to political geography, “German” in the 1860s can include nationalities such as German, Austrian, Polish, Hungarian and others. In fact, Colonel Kozlay and other officers of the 54th were Hungarians.
The next few posts will use Colonel Kozlay’s journal as a jumping-off place for a more detailed look at the 54th’s history in the Civil War and an interesting perspective on the life and times of a regimental commander.