Tag Archives: 54th Massachusetts

Remembering United States Colored Troops on C-SPAN

Gettysburg ConferenceI finally had a chance to watch the panel on USCTs that I moderated at Gettysburg College last month.  C-SPAN aired it this weekend.  I think the discussion went better than what I remembered, though I still get the sense of a subtle or perhaps no so subtle divide among the panelists between a detached scholarly interest in the subject and one that reflects a strong emotional streak.  The latter comes through loud and clear in Hari Jones’s comments.  I guess when it comes to black Union soldiers we still need both.  It is an emotional topic for some and that is certainly understandable at this stage in the game.

One final thought: I definitely should have gotten a haircut before the conference.

An Encouraging Site

Shaw 54thI recently accompanied a group of students to Washington, D.C. to take part in a mock Congress.  With a few hours to kill I decided to take a stroll through the National Gallery of Art.  Included in the collection is a reproduction of the Shaw Memorial, which is located on Beacon Street here in Boston.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of students sitting with a museum teacher, who did a wonderful job of interpreting the monument and engaging the group.  The kids talked about the history of Shaw and the 54th as well as the rich symbolism contained in Saint-Gaudens’s relief.  At one point she asked the kids to share sounds that might be heard in such a scene.  It made my day.

A Presidential Inauguration for the Civil War Sesquicentennial

The Presidential Inauguration exercises have been filled with references to the Civil War era, including President Lincoln, Union, the 150th anniversary of emancipation and the unfinished capitol dome.  I just saw Frederick Douglass and reenactors from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry march by the president’s reviewing stand.  We even heard a reference to Stonewall, though I don’t think it was in recognition of Lee-Jackson Day.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to make these references and remind the country that our history does include significant progress.

On a slightly different note, here is an interesting and even entertaining video of V. Bozeman singing Lynyrd Synyrd’s “Freebird” in a Confederate flag dress.  Here is what she had to say about the choice of song and dress:

I fell in love with the lyrics and thought it would be a great song to cover. When I discovered the band’s previous connection with the confederate flag, I was even more compelled to re-record this song and give new life to it.  Music is so powerful, it’s important for artists such as myself to use our platform to make a positive impact on the world. When I first heard the lyrics in this song, I could relate to its overall message, as I too have the desire to be a “Free Bird.”  The beautiful and most riveting thing about Art is that it speaks to the individual and everyone gets something different from it.

To me, the overall message in “Free Bird” is LOVE!  Something the world needs more of!  Something we ourselves need more of!  LOVE is accepting and understanding…  It’s healing; amongst many other powerful things…essentially, it’s FREEDOM!  Through my expression of “Free Bird,” I wanted to send a visual message to break the chains of negative stereotypes, racism, poverty, war, sexism, self hatred, etc. that hold us back as a people, as a nation.  I decided to release this visual during President Barack Obama’s inauguration because the significance of this historic moment aligns with the overall theme of the song. As an artist I’ve always had a perspective and a voice and its important to me that I always be authentic to not only my fans, but myself in my expression.

Kate Masur Tries Again

Historian Kate Masur has published another op-ed piece on Spielberg’s Lincoln in which she responds to unnamed critics of her earlier review of the movie at the New York Times. It’s difficult to see what, if anything, is new in this follow-up piece, but in reading it I think I have a better sense of what she and other academics find troubling.  First, I am struck by the fact that the movie has enjoyed close to universal praise.  Yes, there are quibbles with the length of the movie and especially the way the last rush to include a series of events leading up to Lincoln’s death at the end, but overall it looks like Americans enjoyed the movie.  Unfortunately, much of the academic debate over the movie simply ignores the groundswell of enthusiasm for this movie.

Masur uses the opportunity to once again drive home the point that Lincoln gives us little more than passive black characters that in the end are given their freedom by Lincoln and Congress.  This is not an insignificant oversight:

[I]t is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

It’s not that there are no voices of blacks fighting for their freedom, but that they are either not central enough to the story or they are the wrong voices altogether.  Consider her critique of the opening battle scene:

Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.

I agree that they function in this manner, but they also impart a clear sense of just what was at stake for African Americans in the war and their central role in forging that “new birth of freedom.”  Masur too easily ignores this and instead offers up her own imagined scenes that she believes could have been used in the film to bring it more in line with current historiography.

Masur closes with the following:

We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.

Indeed, and perhaps that is what this comes down to.  What we see in this critique as well as others is the continued tension between biography and social history.  It’s not simply that Masur wants more voices, what she appears to want is a different kind of story/narrative altogether.

The Complexity of Race

This weekend I head to upstate New York for a conference sponsored by John Brown Lives!  On Friday evening I will host a public screening of the movie Glory at the Palace Theater in Lake Placid for the general public and the following day will do a workshop on the movie for area history teachers.  [There are still slots available if you are in the area and interested.  You do not need to be a teacher to attend.]  I am putting together a little packet for each teacher that includes a selection of Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s letters that will hopefully help them to think beyond the movie.

This little passage to wife Annie caught my eye:

There is a blue-eyed, yellow haired, white-skinned, black preacher out here, who has great influence among the blacks.  He wants to go as chaplain, and I think I shall take him; he looks so much like a white man, that I don’t believe there would be much prejudice against it.  I think I should care very little for public opinion, if it did no harm to the regiment.  It would be out of the question to have any black, field or line, officers at present, because of public sentiment.  It ruined the efficiency of the Louisiana coloured regiments…. [March 17, 1863]

There is quite a bit to unpack in this brief passage.