Reference Entry

Vogelsang, Peter

Lee Passarella

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Vogelsang, Peter

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soldier, was born in New York City. The chief sources of information about his life and career are the official papers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the regimental history, A Brave Black Regiment, written by Luis F. Emilio, a white officer of the regiment in which Vogelsang served from April 1863 until August 1865.Among those helping with the recruitment effort was Frederick Douglass, whose two sons joined the ranks of the Fifty-fourth, and Francis G. Shaw, a prominent New England abolitionist and father of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment's white commanding officer. The elder Shaw recruited Vogelsang, a druggist and dry goods clerk in Brooklyn, who needed no special pleading to join up. A married man, Vogelsang was forty-seven years old, the oldest soldier in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, when he was mustered into service on 17 April 1863. His age and experience had their benefits; Vogelsang exercised an almost paternal influence on the soldiers of the Fifty-fourth. His peacetime work of stocking goods and filling orders also made him a natural for the post of regimental quartermaster sergeant, which he assumed in November 1863, after serving as first sergeant of Company H. On 24 April 1863—soon after the Fifty-fourth had gone for training at Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts—Colonel Shaw already had words of praise for his father's special recruit: “Dear Father, I ought to have written you long ago, that your man Vogelsang was accepted and is a sergeant in one of the new Companies. He is very efficient” (Shaw, 325).Vogelsang did not engage in formal combat, however, until July 1863, when the regiment was sent to participate in one of the Union army's many assaults on Charleston, South Carolina. Characteristically, at first the regiment was not assigned to the main assault against Battery Wagner, a formidable earthen fort on Morris Island, to the east of the city. Instead the Fifty-fourth was sent to James Island, on the west side of Charleston Harbor. Its role was to try to divert the Confederates so that the main event might prove successful. (No direct assault on Battery Wagner would succeed, however. It was finally abandoned by the Confederates after a prolonged siege.)On 15 July the regiment disembarked from the steamer Chausseur onto James Island. Here its men would serve for the first time with white troops (of the Tenth Connecticut). The Fifty-fourth was ordered to form a picket line, and early on the morning of 16 July it was attacked by six companies of the Twenty-fifth South Carolina Regiment. The attack must have been sudden because Sergeant Vogelsang, “who had a post at a palmetto-tree,” later recalled that “in a moment one hundred Rebels were swarming around him” (Emilio, 58). Undaunted, Vogelsang led the men of Company H to their left to join forces with others of the regiment. With the improved numbers now at his disposal, he led the troops forward, taking a musket from a dead Confederate as he advanced. But the tide soon turned, and the Twenty-fifth South Carolina forced the picket line back. In the heat of the skirmish, Vogelsang and eight other men of Company H tried to escape across a creek. Several of the men were killed as they crossed, and seeing the futility of his attempted escape, Vogelsang turned to the pursuing Confederates, indicating his willingness to surrender. At that, a Confederate officer shot him in the chest. Sergeant Vogelsang suffered a severe injury and might well have been captured or killed, except that reinforcements finally pushed forward with the help of heavy guns onboard the federal steamers John Adams and Mayflower. The Confederates were forced to fall back as the Union troops advanced to reclaim their original battle lines. That Vogelsang was wounded trying to surrender points up one of the uglier facts of this often-ugly war: Confederate soldiers were so incensed by seeing African Americans in uniform that they would offer no quarter. It would happen again and again, as it did infamously at Fort Pillow in April of 1864 and at the Battle of the Crater in July of that same year. Long after the incident on James Island, Vogelsang recalled that some of the men of the Fifty-fourth who tried to surrender were first tied up and then shot or bayoneted to death by Confederate troops (Yacovone, 248).However, the bravery of men like Peter Vogelsang changed the minds of many white soldiers who fought for the Union, including those in command positions, such as Major General Alfred H. Terry, one of the divisional commanders of the Department of the South. Following the James Island skirmish, Terry told Colonel Shaw that he was “exceedingly pleased with the conduct of your regiment” (quoted in Yacovone, 40). As a result, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was given its most famous opportunity, the assault on Battery Wagner two days later, on 18 July. Remarkably, despite his injury, Sergeant Vogelsang took part in this action. Though members of the Fifty-fourth managed to breach the walls of the fort, without reinforcements they could not take the stronghold or disable the big guns that threatened approaches by both land and sea. Finally the regiment was forced to withdraw, having suffered heavy casualties, including the death of Colonel Shaw. Afterward Shaw was buried in a mass grave along with his fallen soldiers; this was meant as an affront, both to Shaw's memory and to the federal government for its policy of arming African Americans.The efficiency and bravery of black troops did not impress everyone who wore the blue, and it certainly did not suggest economic parity for these worthy men. Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, refused African Americans the standard thirteen dollars a month paid to white federal soldiers. Instead, African American troops were to be paid three dollars less. In protest the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts served for eighteen months without pay, supported by Colonel Shaw, who himself refused pay. After Shaw's death, however, Brigade Commander Colonel James Montgomery, a notorious Kansas jayhawker with whom Shaw had often sparred, “repudiated the regiment's demand for equal pay and derided the men as savages” and as a “race of slaves.” “He berated them with scurrilous insults especially the obnoxious charge that light complexions exposed some men as the offspring of interracial ‘rascality.’” Small wonder that Sergeant Vogelsang “never forgot the anguish he felt, especially because of Montgomery's slurs concerning skin color” (Yacovone, 272–273). Congress did not enact legislation guaranteeing equal pay for black and white soldiers until June 1864. Under the same act the men of the Fifty-fourth Regiment received back pay retroactive to the beginning of their service.Despite this belated recognition of the contribution of black troops, the entrenched racism of the U.S. military was evident in its reluctance to commission black officers. Indeed it was not until January 1865, eleven months after the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts distinguished itself at the Battle of Olustee in northern Florida, that the War Department agreed to promote Sergeant Stephen A. Swails to the rank of second lieutenant, making him the first African American in a regular combat unit to become a commissioned officer. Further commissions would have to wait until the war was over, including a richly deserved second lieutenancy for Peter Vogelsang. This, too, was turned down by the War Department in May 1865. However, with more lobbying in Washington by Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew, Vogelsang was finally commissioned—now as first lieutenant—in June. He was also named regimental quartermaster and served in this capacity until he was mustered out of the service on 20 August 1865.Vogelsang returned to New York after the war and worked as a clerk in a customs office until his death. The year before he died, he was interviewed by Luis F. Emilio. Vogelsang's comments were included in Emilio's regimental history, a good, forthright source of information about the Fifty-fourth and its heroic men, probably the most celebrated of the 180,000 African Americans who served during the Civil War.

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Subjects: History

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