On Boston Common, at the corner of Beacon and Park streets, stands what many consider to be the greatest public sculpture in the United States – The Shaw Memorial. The picture in this post is a shot I took of two of the twenty-three marching African American soldiers featured in the memorial. An excellent video on the sculpture is embedded below. The high-relief bronze memorial created by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens honors Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. It took Saint-Gaudens almost 14 years to complete his tribute and the unveiling occurred on Memorial Day in 1897. Thirty four years earlier in January 1863, the same month that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew sought to create an all-black regiment as part of his quota of troops from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This unit, known as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, would become the first all-black military unit raised in the North during the Civil War. Governor Andrew elected to commission white officers with military experience and firm anti-slavery principles to lead the unit. He wrote a letter to Francis Shaw, an abolitionist with Boston ties, about his plans and outlined his reasons for offering the command of the 54th to his son Robert Gould Shaw. Governor Andrew enclosed a letter to Robert Gould Shaw and asked his father to be sure he received it as quickly as possible. At this time, Robert was a Captain with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry and in winter camp in Stafford Courthouse, Virginia. Robert Gould Shaw had enlisted when the war began in 1861 and taken part in several battles including Cedar Mountain and Antietam. Francis George Shaw chose to hand deliver Governor Andrew’s letter to his only son Robert and visited him in Virginia.
Robert Gould Shaw initially chose to decline Governor Andrew’s offer but after more consideration and a desire to please his mother, Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, he agreed to accept the command and serve as colonel of the 54th Regiment. A few days later, Robert announced his engagement to Annie Haggerty. The two had met just before the war when Susanna, one of Robert’s sisters, invited Annie to a small gathering of family/friends attending the opera. They had kept up a steady correspondence when Robert was away fighting for the Union. Robert returned to Boston on February 15 when effort began in earnest to both recruit and train men for the 54th. Robert did take a short break for his wedding and honeymoon. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and Anna Kneeland Haggerty were married on May 2, 1863 in The Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in New York City. They spent four relaxing days in the Berkshires of Massachusetts before Shaw learned that he’d have to return before the week was out as the Governor had ordered his regiment to leave for the south in less than three weeks. Departure day was eventually set for May 28, 1863. On that day, at 9 am, 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white officers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment began a parade march through the streets of Boston in full dress uniform. Twenty-five-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw rode at the head of the column. Twenty thousand people turned out to see the regiment off. In the reviewing stands and peering from balconies along the parade route were such dignitaries as Governor John A. Andrew, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass whose sons Charles and Lewis Douglass were members of the 54th. Robert Gould Shaw’s family, including his mother, two of his four sisters and his wife, stood on the second floor balcony of the Sturgis home located at 44 Beacon Street. When Colonel Shaw arrived at their location, he looked up and raised his sword to his lips. His seventeen-year-old sister Ellen, recalling how she felt about her brother Rob at that very moment, later wrote, “his face was as the face of an angel and I felt perfectly sure he would never come back.”
After the parade, the men said goodbye to their families, boarded their transport ship and headed for South Carolina. On June 3, the transport arrived at the port of Hilton Head. A week later, the 54th took part in a raid that involved burning the town of Darien, Georgia – something that upset Colonel Shaw greatly. When Shaw learned in late June that his black troops would receive pay of only $10 per month instead of the $13 per month they had been promised (the same as white troops), he protested personally. The men vowed to accept no pay at all until the issue was resolved – and it eventually was, but not until nearly 18 months passed. Concerned that his men might not see any real action and have the chance to prove themselves, Colonel Shaw wrote to General George Strong on July 6 and asked that the 54th Massachusetts be placed under his command. This occurred a few days later and the regiment performed very honorably in its first major engagement at James Island, South Carolina on July 16. Shortly after the battle, the 54th began a two day excursion with only the hardtack they carried in their packs for food. Marching through mud flats and marsh, through thunderstorms and in the blazing sun, with the aid of two transports they made it to Morris Island on the afternoon of Saturday, July 18, 1863. Here, the heavily fortified Confederate Fort Wagner was located. The fort had been under Union bombardment for more than a day. Colonel Shaw met with General Strong and learned that there would be a frontal assault on Wagner that night. The General asked Shaw if the 54th would like to lead the attack. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw replied, “Yes”. Before joining his men, Colonel Shaw located Edward L. Pierce, a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune and gave him some letters and personal items to pass on to Shaw’s family if he was killed.
The assault on Fort Wagner would begin at dusk. Six Hundred soldiers from the 54th Regiment gathered less than 1,000 yards from the fort and waited. The 54th would lead the first wave of the assault while white troops from Connecticut, New York and New Hampshire regiments would follow in a second wave. What none of the men could have known at that time is the Union bombardment of the fort had been ineffective and its garrison of 1,700 Confederate soldiers would still be fighting at full strength. Both General Strong and Colonel Shaw addressed the men. Shaw encouraged the 54th saying, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.” At about 7:45 pm, Colonel Shaw stood at the front of his regiment and gave the command to advance at the quick-step. The men had their bayonets fixed and they knew the fort must be taken in hand-to-hand combat. With the Atlantic Ocean to the right and a creek on the left, the 54th moved along a narrow strip of beach and Shaw ordered the pace to double-quick while still some distance away. When they were about 100 yards out, the Confederate soldiers from Fort Wagner began firing with such ferocity that the 54th started to hesitate. But Colonel Shaw rallied the men and led a group of them through a ditch and to the top of the parapet. He was one of the first to climb the walls of the fort. Here, as he waved his sword and urged his men forward, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was shot in the chest and fell into the fort. When the flag bearer for the regiment was killed, Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford, Massachusetts grasped the flag and soon planted it on top of the parapet and held it there as the troops scaled the walls. In this detailed account, Carney mentions that he was shot several times during his attempt to prevent the flag from being captured by the enemy. When he reached the Union lines, Carney staggered into a hospital and amidst the cheers of his fellow soldiers – both black and white – told them, “Boys, I but did my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground.” He then collapsed from his wounds.
Following the battle, the Confederate commander of Fort Wagner buried Colonel Shaw in a pit with some of his black soldiers in an attempt to dishonor him. When Shaw’s parents learned this, it had the opposite effect. They said there could be no holier place than where he lies surrounded by his brave soldiers and requested that no attempts be made to recover his body. Of the 600 members of The 54th Massachusetts that led the first wave of the assault on Fort Wagner, nearly half made their way into the fort. Two hundred seventy two were either killed, wounded or captured. The charge had certainly proven the courage of black troops under fire and the bravery of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his fellow officers. Of the assault, even a Confederate officer named Iredell Jones could not help but proclaim, “The Negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a colonel as ever lived.” The story of Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts is told in the must-see 1989 movie Glory. In the film, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is played by actor Matthew Broderick. Below you can read original press coverage of the 54th Massachusetts including articles on recruiting and fundraising, their march through Boston on May 28, 1863 and the attack on Fort Wagner. Transcriptions are also provided.
On Memorial Day in 1897, during the ceremonies unveiling Saint-Gaudens magnificent memorial to Shaw and the 54th, sixty-five veterans of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment marched at the head of the parade. Among those veterans, carrying the American flag, was Sergeant William Carney. Three years later in 1900 his heroic efforts under fire to save the flag would finally be recognized when, nearly 37 years after the assault on Fort Wagner, Carney became the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. That Memorial Day in 1897, Sergeant Carney and his fellow veterans marched along the same route they had taken when they left Boston on May 28, 1863. This time, however, they traveled in the opposite direction, symbolically meeting and honoring their fellow soldiers and their leader Colonel Shaw – men who had not lived to see the lasting impact they had made.
Video link: PBS Documentary – Augustus Saint-Gaudens – The Shaw Memorial (embedded above)
“I know not, Mr. Commander, when, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you.”
- Governor John A. Andrew presenting the regimental colors to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at Camp Meigs in Readville on May 18, 1863.
Original Press Coverage — Recruiting and Fundraising for the 54th
The Liberator (Boston) February 20, 1863 — Meeting at the Joy Street Church
The Liberator (Boston) March 13, 1863 — Aid Meeting/Frederick Douglass’s Call to Arms
The Liberator (Boston) March 27, 1863 — Wendell Phillips Speaks at Fundraiser
“The very flower of grace and chivalry, he seemed to me beautiful and awful, as an angel of God come down to lead the host of freedom to victory.”
- Poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s description of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw leading the 54th Massachusetts Regiment down Beacon Street and off to war.
Original Press Coverage — the 54th Marches Through Boston
The New York Times May 30, 1863
The Liberator (Boston) June 5, 1863
The Liberator (Boston) June 26, 1863
“We’re in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night, and were out again all night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being very heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise of the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”
- From Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s final letter written from Morris Island on July 18, 1863.
Original Press Coverage — the Attack on Fort Wagner
The Liberator (Boston) July 31, 1863
New York Daily Tribune August 3, 1863
Harper’s Weekly August 15, 1863
“I saw them march along to the assault as steadily and sternly as the most veteran of the batallion. I saw them plunge bravely into the terrible abyss of death, which the darkness of night was rapidly concealing from view. As to how they fought, there is the long list of the fallen. As to how far they went, there is the fact of sixty being captured within the fort, and so admitted to me by the rebels under the flag of truce. I can testify that they bore their wounds with the heroic fortitude of the most determined veterans, and they died as nobly.”
-From U.S. Army Medical Inspector A.C. Hamlin’s letter to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson on the courage of the 54th at Fort Wagner.
A Poem honoring Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Bibliography and Resources on the 54th Massachusetts
To learn more about the 54th Massachusetts visit Boston’s Museum of African American History
Audio link: Glory Soundtrack – Closing Credits
Shortcut to this post: 54thMass.com
Promoting this post: Teach History presents
Continuing with my series of posts for Black History Month featuring outstanding African Americans, today I’ll be remembering Alex Haley and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots. Whenever he spoke about Roots while giving talks in various parts of the country, Alex Haley would recall how, as a young boy, he sat on the front porch of his childhood home in Henning, Tennessee and listened to his grandmother Cynthia and Great Aunt Liz, Great Aunt Till, Great Aunt Viney, and Cousin Georgia tell stories passed down in the family. These women would sit in their rocking chairs and speak about their earliest ancestor – someone who they always referred to as the “African”. They said his name was “Kintay” and also mentioned other African words he taught to his daughter Kizzy – words like “Ko” which meant “guitar” and “Kamby Bolongo” which stood for “river”. These stories fascinated and intrigued young Alex Haley but little could he imagine that many years later they would forever change his life. In 1939, at the age of 18, Alex Haley withdrew from college and enlisted in the Coast Guard. It was here that he developed his writing skills by crafting letters to those back home and also for his shipmates – essentially love letters that they could send to their girlfriends. After World War II, Haley remained in the Coast Guard and transferred into the field of journalism. In 1959, after 20 years of service, Alex Haley retired from the Coast Guard with the rank of Chief Petty Officer and the title of Chief Journalist. He then began to pursue a career in journalism by writing articles for magazines including Reader’s Digest, where Haley eventually became a senior editor. His first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was published in 1965. After that project, an assignment for a magazine took him to Washington, D.C. where in his free time he visited the National Archives. Here he searched the census records of Alamance County, North Carolina and located the family of Tom Murray a blacksmith and his wife Irene. He recalled these names from the stories he heard as a boy. Tom and Irene were his great grandparents and they had been slaves. Wanting to learn more, he decided to pay a visit to the only surviving storyteller from those early days on the front porch of the family home in Henning – Cousin Georgia who was almost 80.
Alex Haley flew to Kansas City, Kansas for a reunion with Cousin Georgia. She relayed some of the same stories he had heard as a child including how the African named “Kintay” was a short distance from his village chopping wood to make a drum when he was surprised by slave catchers. She mentioned that he was taken from his homeland and put aboard a slave ship which landed in “Napolis”. Here he was sold and his name changed to Toby. The African, never accepted that name, and always took pride in his real family name “Kintay” and instilled in his daughter Kizzy a sense of who they really were. At the end of their conversation, Alex Haley recalls Cousin Georgia saying “Boy, your sweet Grandma ‘an all the rest of ‘em, they settin’ up there and watchin’ you. Now you git on outa here and do what you got to do.” Those words inspired Alex Haley to begin his 12-year search for his ancestors – a search that involved extensive travel and countless hours of research in numerous libraries and archives. During that genealogical journey, Alex Haley discovered the name of his first ancestor in America and in 1976 the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants came to life in a book called Roots. Adapted into a television miniseries, Roots was originally broadcast in one and two-hour segments over an eight-day period in January 1977 and was seen by 130 million viewers. The sequel Roots: the Next Generations, also tremendously popular, aired in 1979. I was one of the millions of viewers who watched both programs and, as it did for countless others, Alex Haley’s work motivated me to learn more about my own family. Many years later I wrote a book that tells the tale of my Edwards ancestors – a children’s story called One April in Boston. A copy of it sits on the bookshelf in my office, side by side with a far larger book that will always mean a great deal to me – a copy of Roots signed by Alex Haley.
Since receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, Roots has been published in 37 languages! Author Alex Haley died in 1992 but his legacy is quite visible today, in two spots in particular – The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, located in Annapolis, Maryland and at his boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee. The Memorial is located at the head of the Annapolis City Harbor and marks the location where Kunta Kinte arrived. It is the only memorial in the United States to commemorate the actual name and place of arrival of an enslaved African. The beautiful memorial includes a Compass Rose, a Sculpture Group of Alex Haley reading to three children of different ethnic backgrounds as well as a Story Wall with ten bronze plaques. These plaques “share messages designed to encourage reconciliation and healing from a legacy of slavery, ethnic hatred, and oppression. They include commentary and original art about translated epigraphs from Alex Haley’s messages in Roots. The messages are universal in significance.” A few of the messages on the Story Wall plaques appear below:
When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand, nor can your hand pick up anything.
Omoro Kinte, Roots
Knowledge of history can be the first step away from anger and bitterness. Truth leads to understanding. Understanding and forgiveness lead to reconciliation and healing.
• FORGIVENESS •
Your sweet grandma and all of them – they’re up there watching you.
Cousin Georgia, Roots
Knowing our family is knowing ourselves. Our values and traditions are forged through the struggle, heartache, pain, hopes and dreams of our ancestors.
• FAMILY •
The farthest-back person they ever talked about was a man they called the “African.”
Alex Haley, Roots
Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots inspires all peoples to embrace their heritage. As we discover our personal history, we realize that all members of the human family share a universal bond.
• HERITAGE •
You must hear me now with more than your ears!
Omoro Kinte, Roots
This Story Wall is dedicated to those nameless Africans, brought to the New World against their will, who struggled against terrible odds to maintain family, culture, identity and above all, hope.
• DEDICATION •
Alex Haley’s boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee is now a historical site and museum. It is located at 200 South Church Street and the hours are 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday-Saturday; 1 pm to 5 pm, Sunday; and the museum is closed on Monday. For more information, call (731) 738-2240. West Tennessee Journal recently did an incredible segment on The Alex Haley Home and Museum and that video appears below.
Listen to excerpts from the album Alex Haley Tells the Story of His Search for Roots
View Four Treasured Video Clips featuring Author Alex Haley
The Alex Haley Home and Museum (embedded below)
Video link: Alex Haley Home and Museum
In honor of Black History Month this month, Newsweek magazine ran a web exclusive featuring an interview with Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., that I thought was excellent. In the interview, with regard to the month-long celebration, Professor Gates stated “I love Black History Month. But for me, every day is Black History Month, and I would like one day to see the need for Black History Month to disappear because the contributions of our ancestors have become a fundamental part of the American-history curriculum.” When Newsweek asked “What do you think of people who call for an end to Black History Month?”, Professor Gates replied “It depends on who is doing the asking. Their concerns are understandable if they feel Black History Month is ghettoizing. But these sorts of gestures are necessary to reclaim the past. Black History Month has been very effective in resurrecting the stories of our ancestors and in integrating those stories into our history. But we’re not even on the horizon of the time to end Black History Month. When as many Americans are as familiar with Harriet Tubman as they are with Paul Revere, then we can talk about ending Black History Month.” I couldn’t agree with Professor Gates more – and that’s coming from someone with a family connection to
The person I’d like to honor today for Black History Month is a little girl who at about the age of 7 was kidnapped from Africa by slave traders, along with about 80 other Africans, and put aboard the schooner Phillis. The ship landed at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston on July 11, 1761 and the girl was sold into slavery for a low price because of her frail condition. She was purchased by John Wheatley, a tailor and merchant, and his wife Susanna of Boston. Her original African name, unknown to historians today, was changed to “Phillis” when the Wheatley’s named her after the ship that had carried her to Boston. Phillis also took the last name of her new owners and lived with the Wheatley family in their home located on the corner of King Street and Mackerel Lane. From this location, Phillis Wheatley could clearly see the Town House (Old State House) which was just two blocks away. John and Susanna Wheatley had two children, 18-year-old twins Mary and Nathaniel, and with Susanna’s approval Mary began to teach Phillis to read and write. When Phillis wasn’t working as a servant, she continued her studies and proved to be a fast learner. In addition to English, Mary also tutored Phillis in Latin and the scriptures. Sixteen months after her arrival in Boston, Phillis Wheatley could read and write the English language and read even the most difficult Bible passages so well that those who witnessed it stood in disbelief. People thought that simply because Phillis was an African slave she could not accomplish this. How wrong they were – and this was just the beginning of young Phillis Wheatley’s achievements.
Phillis showed an interest in writing poetry and produced her first poem at the age of eleven. As she was very religious, “many of her poems were about God or about the various ministers she heard on Sundays. She liked to write ‘elegies’ – poems that praised people who had died. This kind of poem was very popular during the Colonial era.” I learned this from an excellent new product for schools called “Phillis Wheatley – A Guide for Teachers” produced by the Old South Meeting House and available at their Museum Shop. (Phillis attended church at Old South Meeting House and became a full member when she was 17.) Susanna Wheatley, impressed by Phillis’s poetry, made an effort to get her work published in book form in Boston and when she found no success in this endeavor, sought out and obtained a publisher in England. The printer was concerned that people would not believe that Phillis had actually written the poems unless there was something attesting to that fact. A group of eighteen prominent Boston leaders were chosen to quiz Phillis on her knowledge and she passed this challenging test with flying colors. The men signed a document that would appear at the front of Phillis Wheatley’s book stating that they believed she was qualified to write it.
The May 1773 issue of London’s Gentleman’s Magazine contained an article about Phillis Wheatley mentioning that proposals have just been published for printing, by subscription, some of her poems. This original article is part of my collection of early colonial newspapers. For a closer view of this primary source document: View Phillis Wheatley Article Part I and Phillis Wheatley Article Part 2. The poor health Phillis experienced as a child followed her into adulthood. The Wheatley family sent her on a trip to London in May 1773 with their son Nathaniel to oversee the publication of her book and in hopes that the voyage might improve Phillis’s health. Newspapers in Massachusetts and many of the other colonies mentioned their trip. The May 17, 1773 issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle noted “The Ship London, Capt. Calef, sails on Saturday for London, in whom goes passengers Mr. Nathaniel Wheatley, Merchant; also, Phillis, Servant to Mr. Wheatley, the extraordinary Negro Poetress, at the invitation of the Countess of Huntington.” Phillis was treated like a celebrity in London and she had the opportunity to meet the Earl of Dartmouth and Benjamin Franklin. Plans to meet other dignitaries were cancelled when news arrived that Susanna Wheatley was seriously ill and Nathaniel and Phillis quickly sailed for Boston. After her departure, Phillis Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was printed in London.
When Phillis returned from her trip, John and Susanna Wheatley freed her and she continued to live with them. Susanna Wheatley died in March of 1774 and Phillis, wrote about their relationship noting how close they had become and that Mrs.Wheatley had treated her more like her own child than her servant. The vast majority of slaves were not nearly as fortunate. Earlier that year, no doubt thinking of them, Phillis spoke out against slavery in a letter to Reverend Samson Occum. She penned “… in every human Breast God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance… the same principle lives in us.” In 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution, Phillis wrote a poem about General George Washington who she greatly admired and sent the poem and a letter to General Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge. Washington recognized Phillis’s great talent and responded favorably to her poem and letter, even inviting her to visit him in Cambridge – a trip she is believed to have made.
In 1778, Phillis’s childhood tutor Mary Wheatley and her father John Wheatley died and Mary’s twin Nathaniel was living overseas in England. That same year Phillis married a free black Bostonian named John Peters. Work was tough to find for freed blacks and they lived in poor conditions. Phillis wrote a second book of poetry but was unable to find a publisher. She wished to dedicate the volume to Benjamin Franklin. Her last published poem called “Liberty and Peace” was produced in 1784. By that time two of her infant children had died and Phillis was sick and doing her best to care for a young baby. Phillis died on December 5, 1784 at about the age of 30 and her baby passed away a short time later. They are buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Boston. Although we cannot pay tribute to Phillis Wheatley at a gravesite, there is another place where we can honor her memory. The next time you visit the famous Old South Meeting House, the place where Phillis Wheatley worshipped, instead of thinking of only Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party, take a seat, close your eyes and feel the presence of a truly remarkable African American woman. Listen closely and in your unbounded imagination you might even hear a verse or two from one of her masterful poems like my favorite “On Imagination“.
Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.