History is filled with men who would never rest for the cause of justice. Philadelphia’s George E. Stephens was one of those.

When I was a young historian, Stephens was always one of my favorite Philadelphians. It wasn’t just that he fought in the Civil War. It was that he fought against injustice and for equality for his whole life.

One hundred and sixty years ago, the last of George E. Stephens correspondence dispatches in 1964 were sent to the New York Weekly Anglo-African, and this year is the 35th anniversary years ago the hit Civil War movie Glory was released around the country. The film depicts the mustering of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of Foot, who were gallantly at the helm of the attack on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor in 1863.

He is even an inspiration for a character in Edward Zwick’s film.

He loathed every aspect of slavery.

Stephens was born and raised in Philadelphia, the son of William Stephens, who would eventually become a lay preacher in the First African Baptist Church in the City, which became an extremely active Church in the abolitionist movement as well as the Underground Railroad. He was most likely educated by the Quakers and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, both while in Philadelphia.

Stephens didn’t just didn’t recruit men, he enlisted himself. During the Civil War, he initially joined as a cook in the Army of the Potomac’s 26th Regiment of Foot and began sending war correspondences to the New York Weekly Anglo-African. The correspondences endured as some of the lasting Civil War battlefield descriptions that we have today. 

Stephens was a driving force in enlisting men to join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Philadelphia and would himself join in April 1863 as a sergeant.

He was at the heart of the 54th’s advance on Fort Wagner and was wounded in action, but managed to survive and escape without falling into Confederate hands.

During the assault on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts emerged after dusk and advanced up the beach-head. By the time that the regiment’s advance crashed into the parapet of Wagner, they were significantly decimated. Among the 272 casualties was Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

William Carney, another sergeant of the 54th, when seeing that the United States flag was faltering and about to be carried away into the sand, immediately grabbed it and moved forward despite already being wounded. After being pulled to safety, he refused to let go of the flag.

Stephens hated slavery . While at sea between 1857 and 1858, Ironically, he was nearly enslaved, himself, not far from where the 54th Massachusetts would make their gallant charge on Fort Wagner in 1863.

After the Civil War, he also educated newly freed slaves in addition to his work with the Underground Railroad and his unwavering dedication to abolitionism.

Not to diminish the contributions of other great activists like Octavius V. Catto or William Still during the American Civil War, when it came to furthering the fight for freedom and equality — George E. Stephens wasn’t just a part of the movement in Philadelphia.

He was leading it.

Michael Thomas Leibrandt is a historian who lives and works in Abington Township, Pa.

One thought on “Of all of our Philadelphia Civil War activists, George E. Stephens was the most significant”

  1. It was good and important that G. E. Stephens was noticed for his New York Weekly Anglo-African war correspondence. Hopefully, you will be told more, including quotes from those articles.

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