Guest post by Ronald S. Coddington
One day during the summer of 1904, Alex Johnson beamed as he stood on the Boston Common before the Shaw Memorial. Four decades earlier, he and his comrades in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry passed this spot as they marched off to war with Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Now, Johnson and a group of survivors from the famed regiment marveled at the glorious sculpture erected to commemorate their achievements.
Johnson and other veterans gathered in Boston to participate in a “Grand Encampment” of the Grand Army of the Republic, or G.A.R. The organization of former Union soldiers wielded enormous influence and political power in turn-of-the-century America. According to an anecdote in the official proceedings of the event, Johnson “pointed out to his friends a representation of himself in the figures on the Shaw memorial, opposite the State House. The resemblance to Johnson, even so many years after the war, was very noticeable to his friends.”
The figure he singled out was the drummer at the head of the column. Johnson had enlisted in the Fifty-fourth as a musician when he was 16 years old. His abilities as a percussionist reportedly caught the attention of Col. Shaw, who labeled him “The Original Drummer Boy.”
Any connection between Johnson and the drummer depicted on the Shaw Memorial was a pure coincidence. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens based the African American figures on hired models. His early concept sketches in fact did not include any men of color. He later added them after Shaw’s parents raised an objection to an equestrian monument to their son as being pretentious.
That Johnson saw himself in Saint-Gaudens’ masterpiece is not unexpected. But I found it surprisingly easy to lose myself in a cast of the sculpture after recently viewing it at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The life-sized figures, each possessed of unique characteristics, instantly drew me into the scene. At the same time I was struck by the unity of motion, all in lockstep with confidence and urgency as they surged forward to their destiny.
For a fleeting moment I was with them on that glorious day in May 1863 as they marched through Boston to a waiting vessel to transport them to the South. Then I flashed forward to the sandy beaches of coastal South Carolina in front of Fort Wagner at twilight on July 18, 1863. I summoned the vivid descriptions of horror and brutality and death recorded by Louis F. Emilio in his history of the Fifty-fourth, A Brave Black Regiment. “Wagner became a mound of fire, from which poured a stream of shot and shell. Just a brief lull, and the deafening explosions of cannon were renewed, mingled with the crash and rattle of musketry. A sheet of flame, followed by a running fire, like electric sparks, swept along the parapet.”
The Shaw Memorial is more than a tribute to the sacrifice of soldiers in war. It depicts a seminal moment in the history of race relations in the United States. It illustrates a core narrative at the heart and soul of our larger Civil War story. We see determined black men driven by hope, who enlisted in the fight to free their enslaved brothers and sisters in the seceded Southern states. They appear to be leading their young white commander, who leans slightly back in the saddle of his horse. Initially hesitant to join the regiment, he finally resolved to serve the cause of universal equality in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In his address at the dedication of the Shaw Memorial in 1897, Booker T. Washington acknowledged post-war setbacks that denied African Americans their basic rights. He described a future America of hope in which equality would be achieved. “Until that time comes, this monument will stand for effort, not victory complete. What these heroic souls of the 54th Regiment began, we must complete. It must be completed not in malice, nor narrowness, nor artificial progress, nor in efforts at mere temporary political gain, nor in abuse of another section or race.”
Today we are still a nation struggling to achieve equality in a multiethnic and multicultural society. We search for ways to march together with hope on our wings and peace as our guide. We know that Shaw and his men proved their valor and answered the question “Will black men fight?” with a resounding yes. We know that a century later during the civil rights movement that Dr. Martin Luther King and others, black and white, proved again their conviction and resolve.
The steady drumbeat of hope is the legacy of the Shaw Memorial. Alex Johnson would likely have agreed. The drum he carried on the spring day in 1863 was still in his possession when he died at age 83 in 1930.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is mounting an exhibition celebrating the Shaw Memorial September 15, 2013 – January 20, 2014. Mr. Coddington’s latest book, African American Faces of the Civil War, was used for the exhibit’s research, for which he also provided a cartes de visite that will be on display.
Ronald S. Coddington is assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, a contributing writer to the New York Times’s Disunion series, and a columnist for Civil War News. His trilogy of Civil War books, African American Faces of the Civil War, Faces of the Confederacy, and Faces of the Civil War, all published by Johns Hopkins University Press, combine compelling archival images with biographical stories to reveal the human side of the war.