George E. Stephens
George E. Stephens (1832 - April 24, 1888) was a 1st Sergeant and 1st and 2nd Lieutenant in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an American Civil War Union regiment, and a war correspondent to the New York Weekly Anglo-African.
Stephens was born in 1832 in Philadelphia, where his family had moved from Virginia the previous year to escape the white violence which arose following Nat Turner’s rebellion. His father worked as a bookblack, waiter, and laborer, and became a lay preacher in the First African Baptist Church, a strongly abolitionist congregation active in the underground railroad. George Stephens became quite well educated, likely in schools operated by the Quakers and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. He worked as a cabinet maker, with stints also as an upholsterer and as a sailor.
Together with 15 other associates, in 1853 he founded a literary society and library named the Banneker Institute in honor of the African-American mathematician Benjamin Banneker. He also became active in the underground railway. During his time at sea during 1857-1858, Stephens was nearly enslaved in Charleston, S.C., building his hatred of slavery even higher that his earlier strong abolitionist views.
Like a great many Northern blacks, once the civil war broke out Stephens was outraged and frustrated by the Federal government’s initial unwillingness to allow them to fight against the South. Stephens signed on as the cook and personal servant of Benjamin C. Tilghman, an officer in the Army of the Potomac’s 26th Regiment. He began sending his war correspondence to the New York Weekly Anglo-African during his service with the 26th. After the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — the first regiment enlisting free Northern blacks — began forming during March 1863, Stephens argued strongly for black support of the regiment, and recruited enlistees for several months, He himself reported for duty as a 1st Sergeant on April 30, 1863. He was in the heart of the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor on July 18, 1863, being wounded and barely escaping capture. He fought through the war with the 54th Massachusetts, receiving field commissions as a 2nd Lieutenant and then as a 1st Lieutenant, mustering out of the army in July 1865.
After the war, he initially worked in conjunction with the Freedmen's Bureau at educating newly freed slaves in Virginia. For a time he worked in Philadelphia, and later moved to Brooklyn, NY, where he died in 1888.
- Donald Yacovone, editor, A Voice of Thunder. The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, 1998, 392 pages. ISBN 0-252-06790-8. ISBN 978-0-252-06790-7.