Item #8802 Storming Fort Wagner.

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Storming Fort Wagner.

Chicago: Kurz & Allison Art Publishers, 76 & 78 Wabash Ave., 1890. Chromolithograph, 17.5” x 25” plus margins. CONDITION: Very good, a few minor spots to margins, one small chip to margin at right hand with paper repair to verso; moderate rubbing and three rather minor strips of adhesive residue to verso.

A vivid chromolithograph depicting the heroism of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment—the first all-Black unit to fight alongside white troops—in its attempt to take Fort Wagner during the siege of Charleston.

Described by Frederick Douglass’s son Lewis as “the most desperate charge of the war,” the assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment proved to the nation the ability of African American soldiers to fight, and inspired the creation of more Black Union regiments (Zack). The charge is perhaps best known today as the basis for the film Glory (1989) starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman. 

The battle took place on July 18th, 1863, and was the second unsuccessful attempt to take the fort in the early weeks of the siege of Charleston. The regiment suffered heavy losses, including the death of its commander, Boston abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw, who was shot while leading his men to the parapet of Fort Wagner. Despite the assault’s ultimate failure, the valor of the regiment rendered it the most renowned African American unit of the Civil War. After visiting with the wounded following the attack, a New York Post journalist wrote: “No man can pass among these sufferers…and not be inspired with the deepest abhorrence of slavery and an unquenchable desire for the freedom of their race” (Zack).

This broadside dramatizes the 54th’s charge towards the fort, with numerous soldiers exchanging close-range fire with Confederates and three stabbing their foes with bayonets. Several dead and wounded are slumped on the ground, while ranks of Black soldiers approach from the left to support their comrades already clambering over the ramparts. Two white officers lead the charge in the foreground—one, presumably General Gillmore, who had also commanded the first attack on Fort Wagner, raises a rallying sword in the center next to the color-bearer. (Although the first color-bearer was killed in the battle, William H. Carney continued displaying the Union flag despite his own injuries, and later became the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor). In the background, a shell explodes above six war-ships in the harbor. Details of the battle are provided below the image, including both Union and Confederate losses: “Gen. Strong, Cols Shaw, Chatfield, Putnam,” and “1200 Sol.,” while on the Confederate side, sixteen officers and 300 soldiers.

The lithography firm of Kurz and Allison (1880–ca. 1905) was founded by Alexander Allison (probably the financial partner) and Austrian-born lithographer Louis Kurz (1835–1921), who came to America with his family after the revolutionary upheavals in Europe in 1848. By the 1850s Kurz was painting murals and theatrical sets in Chicago. According to some accounts, Kurz developed a friendship with Abraham Lincoln, who then asked him to make sketches of the Civil War. Whether or not this is true, Kurz did serve in the Union Army, and in 1884 produced a chromolithograph modeled on a section of Paul Philippoteaux’s highly successful Gettysburg cyclorama, which was first shown in Chicago in 1883. Kurz’s lithograph proved to be the first of thirty-six Civil War prints he would make over the next ten years. Kurz and Allison were not alone in capitalizing on America’s desire twenty years after the end of the war to process and memorialize the conflict. However, in a period of “intensifying white racism when many white Americans were fast forgetting the contribution of African Americans to the war effort,” (Neely, p. 218), the firm was unique in its numerous depictions of Black participation and heroism in the Union struggle.

REFERENCES: Neely, Mark E. and Harold Holzer, The Union Image: Popular Prints of the Civil War North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Zack, Aaron. “The 54th Massachusetts and the Second Battle of Fort Wagner,” at the National Park Service online.

Item #8802

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