Thursday, July 18, 2013

The day they died like white men

The Shaw Memorial at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. This bronze version dates from the mid-1990s.
In a letter to his wife Augusta in Enfield, N.H., on Aug. 3, 1863, Lt. Calvin Shedd of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers described the fate of several men in his regiment during the attack on Fort Wagner, S.C. He ended his epistle with a bitter swipe at another Union regiment that had suffered similar casualties during the battle.

Faces of the 54th Massachusetts drummer boys. Plaster casts of other
faces, including Col. Shaw's, are on display in one of the Cornish studios. 
This was the famous 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw. The fort, on Morris Island, was one of several guarding Charleston Harbor. Shedd had just read northern newspaper accounts of the battle that singled out the 54th for its courage and sacrifice. He complained “that the niggers have the credit of doing the work on Morris.” This was “all ‘hum,’ ” he wrote. “Give the niggers their due but I don’t like to see injustice done the white regts. for the sake of building up the reputation of the blacks.”

Both regiments marched to slaughter at Fort Wagner. In writing Our War, I told a slice of each of their stories. I built my July 18, 1863, chapter around the experience of Ferdinand Davis, a sergeant in the 7th New Hampshire who survived that harrowing night. The next chapter, for July 20, centers on Esther Hill Hawks, a Manchester, N.H., abolitionist and medical doctor who cared for the wounded of the 54th Massachusetts. In her diary Hawks recorded the stories of some of these men. When she asked one man why he fought, the man answered: “Not for my country – I never had one – but to gain one.”

Calvin Shedd’s resentment over the lionizing of the 54th was a common thread in the letters of white soldiers after Fort Wagner. Shedd was not as racist as many of his comrades. In the same letter, he wrote that another black regiment camped nearby “look as if they might do good business.” And he was correct: His and other white regiments had suffered the same fate as the 54th without being celebrated in the papers. The 54th, a full new regiment, had 272 casualties, including 34 dead. The 7th New Hampshire, an older regiment with a thinned roster, lost 216, including 41 dead.

Guided by an angel, Shaw leads his regiment forward.
But Shedd was also wrong. The 54th Massachusetts captured the reporters’ attention and the public’s imagination for a reason. For decades a large portion of the press had treated African-Americans as subhuman. At Fort Wagner these African-Americans had showed courage and discipline in a frontal assault on an impregnable position. Yes, they did the same thing as the white regiments that followed them to the fort, but that was the point. Black soldiers had fought and bled and died like white soldiers.

One of the gems of modern-day New Hampshire is the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. It should be on the destination list for anyone interested in the Civil War.

It was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, as much as anyone, who created the images through which the nation – or at least the northern half of it – memorialized the war. In Cornish, it is the creation itself that is memorialized – of the Admiral Farragut and William Tecumseh Sherman statues in New York City, of the so-called Standing Lincoln in Chicago and especially of the Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common.

Recently Monique and I took two of our grandchildren to the site. Grace and Jackson are 12 and 9 and live in Massachusetts, and on the drive to Cornish I told them the story of the 54th. They listened well, and when we arrived, they wanted to see everything – the sculptures, Saint-Gaudens’s house and studios, the old wagons and carriages, the active studio in the woods, the garden. We spent several minutes examining the Shaw Memorial from different perspectives and talking about the soldier images and the effect that Saint-Gaudens created.

In The Shaw Memorial: A Celebration of an American Masterpiece, a large illustrated paperback on sale at the site, Gregory C. Schwartz tells the story of Saint-Gaudens’s struggle to complete the sculpture. It took him 14 years, to the frustration of the committee that commissioned the work, or at least to those members who survived to see it.

The riflemen of the 54th Massachusetts on the march into history. 
The sculptor first met with the memorial committee in 1882 but would not share a proposal for the work unless he received the commission. The Shaw Memorial was unveiled in 1897.

The version at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site was first displayed at the Pan-American Exhibition in 1901 – the fair remembered for the assassination of President William McKinley, who had at fought at Antietam. The Shaw stayed on display in Buffalo until 1919 and then in storage for nearly 30 years. It arrived in Cornish in 1949, where it spent a decade more in storage. Saint-Gaudens’s house (Aspet), studios and grounds, along with the sculptures there, have been a national historic site since 1965 – nearly half a century.

The memorial you see today is a mid-1990s bronze cast from the plaster cast, which was showing its age. It is well-sited at the end of a long rectangular patch of lawn with a green hedge rising high around it.

For all its travels, the Shaw remains a moving tribute to the 54th’s charge 150 years ago today. In the moment, it was a failed and fatal charge. In the long run, it was, as Saint-Gaudens saw, a brave step in the difficult journey “to gain a country.”

[Thanks to my friend David R. Sullivan for the use of his photos of the Shaw Memorial in Cornish.]

[There are two collections of Calvin Shedd's Civil War letters. He served with the 7th New Hampshire in both Florida and South Carolina. The South Carolina letters are digitized here, at the University of South Carolina, along with a biographical note and synopsis of its letters. You'll find the Florida letters digitized here, at the University of Miami, whose site also has extensive biographical material.] 

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