It was on this day, the 10th of October, in 1837 that Robert Gould Shaw was born into the intellectual and Unitarian elites in Boston, Massachusetts.
Before they sold the property at 25 Beacon Street, every time I would go up to the Unitarian Universalist Association denominational headquarters on Beacon Hill in Boston, I would stop at the monument to the men of the 54th Massachusetts that stands just opposite what was the UUA headquarters. It absolutely captured my heart. And I would wander around Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ masterwork contemplating, well, many things. It continues to haunt my dreams.
The Massachusetts 54th was the first black regiment sent into battle in the Civil War.
Due to the bone deep racism of the time, even for those who fought to end slavery, their commanding officers had to be white. And so fierce abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw was appointed their colonel. The troops including their colonel knew the war was not about state’s rights. Or, rather it was about only one terrible, sinful right. And they were prepared to fight, to kill, and if necessary to die to put an end to this one terrible thing. The 54th was all about ending slavery.
Along the way to freedom they suffered various indignities. For instance they were recruited with the promise of equal pay to their white compatriots. But, once in South Carolina they were informed they would be paid roughly one half of white soldiers. Colonel Shaw protested loudly and the regiment decided to accept no pay less than their fair payment. All the time they were continuing to put their lives on the line. Finally Congress intervened and they were paid equally.
The 54th was first bloodied on July 16th 1863, stopping a Confederate assault on James Island, in South Carolina. Then, two days later, they were the spear point of an assault on Fort Wagner.
According to Wikipedia It was “at this battle Colonel Shaw was killed, along with 29 of his men; 24 more later died of wounds, 15 were captured, 52 were missing in action and never accounted for, and 149 were wounded. The total regimental casualties of 272 would be the highest total for the 54th in a single engagement during the war.
“Although Union forces were not able to take and hold the fort (despite taking a portion of the walls in the initial assault), the 54th was widely acclaimed for its valor during the battle, and the event helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of African-American troops, a key development that President Abraham Lincoln once noted as helping to secure the final victory.“Decades later, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honorfor grabbing the U.S. flag as the flag bearer fell, carrying the flag to the enemy ramparts and back, and singing “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!” While other African Americans had since been granted the award by the time it was presented to Carney, Carney’s is the earliest action for which the Medal of Honor was awarded to an African American.”
As the article continues, “A Union officer had asked the Confederates at Battery Wagner for the return of Shaw’s body, but was informed by the Confederate commander, Brigadier General Johnson Hagood, “We buried him with his niggers.”
“Shaw’s father wrote in response that he was proud that Robert, a fierce fighter for equality, had been buried in that manner. ‘We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen.’ As a recognition and honor, at the end of the Civil War, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, and the 33rd Colored Regiment were mustered out at the Battery Wagner site of the mass burial of the 54th Massachusetts.”
I find myself haunted by questions. Among them, who would you die among? Who are your brothers and sisters?
Who would you be buried with?
Something terrible and beautiful emerged out of the collaboration of Colonel Shaw and the men of the 54th, and their fight, somehow captured in that common grave. A hope. A dream.
The secret heart of who we might yet become.