June 20, 1902 — High School Commencement, St. Luke’s M.E. Church, Long Branch NJ
Through the whole afternoon there had been a tremendous cannonading of the fort from the gunboats and the land forces. About six o’clock there cam moving up the island, over the burning sands and under the burning sky, a stalwart, splendid-appearing set of men who looked equal to any daring and capable of any heroism. Weary, travel=stained, with the mire and the rain of a two-days’ tramp; weakened by the incessant strain and lack of food; with gaps in their ranks made by the death of comrades who had fallen in battle but a little time before, it was plain to be seen of what stuff these men were made, and for what work they were ready.
As this regiment, the famous Fifty-fourth, came up the island to take its place at the head of the storming party in the assault on Wagner, it was cheered from all sides by the white soldiers.
The day was lurid and sultry. Great masses of cloud, heavy and black, were piled in the western sky, fringed here and there by an angry red, and torn by vivid streams of lightning. Not a breath of wind shook the leaves or stirred the high, rank grass by the water side; a portentous and awful stillness filled the air.
Quiet, with the like awful and portentous calm, the black regiment, head by its young, fair-haired, knightly colonel, marched to its destined place and action. A slightly rising ground, raked by a murderous fire; a ditch holding three feet of water; a straight lift of parapet thirty feet high — an impregnable position, held by a desperate and invincible foe. Here the word of command was given:
“We are ordered and expected to take Battery Wagner at the point of the bayonet. Are you ready?”
“Ay, ay, sir! ready!” was the answer.
And the order went pealing down the line: “Ready! Close ranks! Charge bayonets! Forward! Double-quick, march!’”
And away they went, under a scattering fire, in one compact line, till within one hundred feet of the fort, when the storm of death broke upon them. Every gun belched forth its great shot and shell; every rifle whizzed out its sharp-singing, death freighted messenger. The men wavered not for an instant — onward, forward they went. They plunged into the ditch; waded through the deep water, no longer of muddy hue, but stained crimson with their blood; and commenced to climb the parapet. The foremost line fell, and then the next, and the next. On, over the piled-up mounds of dead and dying, of wounded and slain, to the mouth of the battery; seizing the guns; bayonetting the gunners at their posts; planting their flag and struggling around it; their leader on the walls, sword in hand, his blue eyes blazing, his fair face aflame, his clear voice calling out: “Forward, my brave boys!” then plunging into the hell of battle before him.
As the men were clambering up the parapet their color-sergeant was shot dead. A nameless hero who was just behind sprang forward, seized the staff form his dying hand, and with it mounted upward. A ball struck his right arm; but before it could fall shattered by his side, his left hand caught the flag and carried it onward. Though faint with the loss of blood and wrung with agony, he kept his place, — the colors flying, — up the slippery steep; up to the walls of the fort; on the wall itself, planting the flag where the men made that brie, splendid stand, and melted away like snow before furnace heat. Here a bayonet thrust met him and brought him down, a great wound in his brave breast, but he did not yield; dropping to his knew, pressing his unbroken arm upon the gaping wound — the colors still flew, and inspiration to the men about him, a defiance to the foe.
At last when the shattered ranks fell back, sullenly and slowly retreating, he was seen painfully working his way downward, still holding aloft the flag, bent evidently on saving it, and saving it as flag had rarely, if ever, been saved before.
Slowly, painfully he dragged himself onward, — step by step down the hill, inch by inch across the ground, — to the door of the hospital; and then, while dying eyes brightened, while drying men held back their souls from the eternities to cheer him, gasped out: “I did — but do — my duty, boys, — and the dear — old flag — never once — touched the ground — And then, away from the reach and sight of its foes, in the midst of its defenders who loved and were dying for it, the flag at last fell.
The next day a flag of truce went up to beg the body of the heroic young chief who had so led that marvelous assault. It came back without him. A ditch, deep and wide, had been dug; his body and those of twenty-two of his men, found dead upon and about him, flung into it in one common heap; and the word sent back was: “We have buried him with his niggers.”
It was well done. Slavery buried these men, black and white, together — black and white in a common grave. Let Liberty see to it, then, that black and white be raised together in a life better than the old.
Source: The High School Prize Speaker, ed. William Leonard Snow, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company), 1916, pp. 65-68.