Tag Archives: 54th Massachusetts

A Negro Volunteer Song

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, Boston

Today I found the following poem as a news clipping in a scrapbook contained in the Norwood P. Hallowell Papers, 1850-1914 at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  It’s titled, “A Negro Volunteer Song” and was written by a private in Co. A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Fremont told them when the war it first begun,
How to save the Union, and way it should be done;
But Kentucky swore so hard, and old Abe he had his fears,
Till every hope was lost but the colored volunteers.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, all free without a slave,

We’ll fight to defend it as our Fathers did so brave,
The gallant Comp’ny A will make the rebels dance,
And we’ll stand by the Union if we only have a chance.

McClellan went to Richmond with two hundred thousand
[brave,
He said “keep back the niggers,” and the Union he would
[save.
Little Mac he had his way, still the Union is in tears,
Now they call for the help of the colored volunteers.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, &c.

Old Jeff says he’ll hang us if we dare to meet him armed,
A very big thing, but we are not all alarmed,
For he first has got to catch us before the way is clear,
And “that’s what’s the matter” with the colored volunteers.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, &c

So rally, boys, rally, let us never mind the past,
We had a hard road to travel but our day is coming fast,
For God is for the right and we have no need to fear,
The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, &c

Remembering Glory

One of the highlights of my time in Boston was meeting 54th Massachusetts reenactor, Gerard Grimes. The monument to the 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is by far my favorite Civil War monument and no trip to Boston can conclude without a quick stop.  The site is a wonderful case study of just how far removed the memory of black Union soldiers is from our national memory of the war.  On the one hand, the monument is in the most prominent location, just across from the state house, but for many people it seems to have little significance beyond a bus stop. Michaela and I chatted with Mr. Grimes for quite some time. He’s been reenacting for a number of years and spends his summers camped out in front of the monument to talk with visitors. During the rest of the year, Mr. Grimes works as a grade school teacher. Not surprisingly, Mr. Grimes knew nothing about this monument as a child growing up in the Boston area. In fact, he chuckled when suggesting the number of times he must have walked by it without understanding its significance.

Mr. Grimes clearly feels a moral obligation to educate the public about what is still a little known topic in American history.  And the best part is watching his face light up when discussing the history or perhaps I should say his history.

Is the Real “Glory” Part of Our History of the Civil Rights Movement?

Just wanted to follow up with a few thoughts that didn’t make it into yesterday’s re-published post.  The pay crisis scene in the movie, Glory, is a significant moment in the film.  When the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts learn that they will be paid less than white soldiers protest erupts and leads to the tearing up of pay vouchers.  Tripp (played by Denzel Washington) leads the protest and represents the beginning of his transition to identifying with the rest of the men in the regiment.  Colonel Shaw’s (played by Matthew Broderick) decision to join his men by tearing up his own voucher symbolizes his growing identification with his men and their cause.  The scene fits neatly into the movie’s broader theme of triumph over adversity and the challenge of building unit cohesion.  This theme evolves throughout the movie in scenes involving white officers and black enlisted soldiers, between white and black enlisted soldiers, and even with the ranks of the enlisted black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts. [Click here if you are looking for an easy way edit YouTube videos.]

The climax of the movie involving the unit’s failed attack at Battery Wagner marks their final triumph over adversity and their collective sacrifice around the flag.  Thomas confidently declares that he will carry the flag in battle if necessary; Tripp dies while holding the flag and after rejecting an earlier offer from Shaw to carry it into battle; and Shaw falls after holding it briefly in the midst of a desperate attempt to rally his men just outside the fort.  The unit’s “Glory” not only comes through sacrifice, but in the movie director’s decision as to where and when to end the story.  The final scenes that include Shaw being buried with his men juxtaposed against Augustus Saint-Gaudens beautiful monument to the regiment leave the audience with feelings of national pride and a sense that the men did indeed triumph over adversity from within in order to take part in a war for freedom and against a government that would return them to bondage if successful.  The only story that was possible to tell in 1989, and perhaps even today, is one that fits within our understanding of who was right and who was wrong.  However, such simplistic moral distinctions usually come with a price tag and in the case of Glory it is in the way that facts/events are manipulated.

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The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History

This post was published last year at this time and since my students are preparing essays on the subject I thought I might offer it once again.

glory-dvdcoverToday my Civil War classes finished watching the movie Glory, which is still my all-time favorite Civil War movie. Students enjoy the movie in part because of the heroic story of the unit and the performances by Denzell Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick. The movie does a very good job of addressing the discrimination faced by the 54th Massachusetts as well as their heroic performance at Battery Wagner in July 1863. Like all historical movies Glory gets certain things right and certain things wrong. One of the themes that the movie captures is the slow progress that Col. Robert G. Shaw experienced in learning to more closely empathize with his men as well as the gradual changes that took place among white Union soldiers as they questioned their own racial outlook in response to the battlefield prowess of black regiments like the 54th. This is an issue that my students recently read about in an article by Chandra Manning. As for problems, well, they abound throughout the movie such as the profile of the regiment, which is presented primarily as a unit of fugitive slaves. Most of the men were free blacks from Massachusetts. Other problems include the time frame for the raising and training of the regiment which began in 1863 rather than 1862 as well as the failure to acknowledge Shaw’s marriage at any point in the movie.

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Obama and Civil War Memory

A few months ago I speculated on how an Obama victory might affect how we remember our Civil War.  I suggested that the election of our first black president (regardless of political affiliation) would present us with an opportunity to remember and commemorate aspects of the war that have traditionally been downplayed, if not ignored entirely.  Obama himself has encouraged this by voicing his admiration for Doris K. Goodwin’s book, along with a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and plans to follow part of the route that Lincoln took in March 1861.  Now we hear that reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts will march in the inaugural parade.  Millions of Americans will learn about the history and significance of these soldiers without any of the distraction associated with so-called black Confederates (Confederate slaves).  I couldn’t be happier for the members of the units who will take part because I know first hand what it means to them.

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