Their spirits are marching again. Spirits harkening back to May 28 ,1863 when Col. Robert Gould Shaw, led the all-Black Massachusetts 54th Regiment to join the Union army in the Civil War. Their historic march down Beacon Street past the State House was captured by American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The sculpture, sited on Beacon Street at the edge of the Boston Common, honored one of the first African American regiments to fight for the Union army.
And this Memorial Day weekend, after months of critical restoration, there will be another special unveiling of the famous work — this treasured Boston monument once again restored to its former glory courtesy of The Partnership to Renew the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial.
Just a little over two months after the 54th’s triumphant march down Beacon Street, Shaw was dead and nearly half of the 600-member regiment were killed or missing in the brutal battle at South Carolina’s Fort Wagner. Some were injured and captured — the valor and the ultimate sacrifice of the men of the 54th, as well as other Black Union soldiers, would inspire the first Memorial Day after the war. It was a remembrance not designed by the military or the leaders of the then patched together union of states, but by the formerly enslaved for whose freedom they fought.
They called it Decoration Day and on that first special occasion of remembrance, there was a parade of 3,000 school children carrying roses, and women cradling baskets of blooms, wreaths and crosses in a planned walk to the local cemeteries. There in Charleston, South Carolina, in May of 1865, they ended their procession and decorated the gravesites of the fallen. Among the headstones, they took part in a day-long program of speeches, Bible readings and patriotic songs, including the Star-Spangled Banner. And, foreshadowing what this Decoration Day turned Memorial Day would become, they celebrated with games and picnics.
Historian David Blight documented that the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops performed a special double columned march around the gravesites. And, in a full circle moment, our own 54th Massachusetts Regiment joined them marching in cadence. Today, that first ceremony has been restored in the history books, and an official marker notes the spot where those freedmen and their families gathered. The formal rededication of the Shaw 54th Regiment monument will take place in the fall. But, on the Boston Common today, witnesses to the unveiling of the newly refurbished sculpture will be invited to write their names in the restoration book and a take away a commemorative pen.
I marvel when I think about Black people, including the veterans of the Civil War, who created and organized that first Memorial Day. A patriotic tribute for the African-American soldiers who took a bullet for the still young America — the soldiers and the people who honored them not yet citizens. Those African Americans were hopeful that the promise of a reunited America would eventually be realized for them. Their hope for America’s full embrace even more poignant the week after the nation mourned the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and seeks to understand its meaning.
On this Memorial Day, I will reflect on the storied march of the Massachusetts 54th and the ordinary people who came together 156 years ago.
True believers. True loyalists. True patriots.