One hundred and fifty years ago today the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry entered Charleston, South Carolina. Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle offer a vivid description of this moment in the latest New York Times Disunion column. It’s an incredibly powerful scene and one that is beautifully captured in the pages of Harpers Weekly.
Funny, but in all of the historical tours that I have taken with history teachers and student groups, I have never heard this scene referenced. How is it that such a joyous scene that celebrates freedom, located at the very core of the slaveholding South, is not fully embraced? The truth is that from a certain perspective this scene is just a little unsettling. From the vantage point of 1861 these men were never meant to be. The men, women and children welcoming them to their home and celebrating their freedom was not a foregone conclusion just a few years previous. As we all know, the war could have ended without anything in this scene coming to pass. Continue reading “‘From the Birthplace of Secession to the Graveyard of Slavery’”→
One of the stumbling blocks that I continue to come up against in researching the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry is in reference to Governor John Andrew. The problem is especially acute given my interest in the pay crisis of 1863-64. Andrew played an important role as an advocate for these men, but I am only able to skirt the surface of his involvement thus far. Unless I am mistaken, the last biography was written in 1904. I suspect that his pre-mature death in 1867 as well as the general trend of the nation’s collective memory by the end of the nineteenth century has something to do with his disappearance from the historical landscape.
Of course, he makes a very brief appearance in the movie Glory and you will find him referenced in scores of Civil War studies that focus on the organization and deployment of black Union soldiers, but there seems to be little more. Can anyone think of a more important Civil War era governor? Andrew is central not only to the inclusion of African Americans in the United States military, but emancipation itself.
I am now toying with writing a Civil War biography of Andrew. Such a focus would allow me to continue to research black Union soldiers and the story of black citizenship in Massachusetts, but it would also highlight Andrew’s role in this dramatic story. I suspect there is also room to talk about how Andrew was remembered in connection to emancipation and black soldiers after his death.
Head on over to the Atlantic for my most recent essay on the legacy of our Civil War’s African American soldiers and the movie, Glory. The essay brings together a couple of posts that I recently did on how I teach the movie and how I utilize the history of the pay crisis try to give students a different perspective on the significance of what these men accomplished during the war [see here and here]. You can check out all of my Atlantic essays here.
This pattern those sympathetic to the Confederacy acknowledging the sacrifice and honor of black soldiers is relatively new. Kevin’s right that it’s often tied into a hesitancy to see the Confederacy as it really was. But to my mind, Gingrich’s novel is progress–not the ultimate solution, but progress. For a century, the Lost Cause rendition of history meant writing black people, as agents, out of it. [my emphasis]
On one level it is easy to view Gingrich’s interest in highlighting the story of United States Colored Troops as progress even though it does so without threatening the Lost Cause interpretation of Confederate soldiers and Robert E. Lee. I admit as much in the review, but at the same time we should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves. As I also mentioned in the review, Gingrich’s narrative of the 28th USCT basically follows the story line laid out in the movie, Glory. That story is now roughly 25 years old. From this perspective it’s not clear to me what kind of progress we are talking about. Is it progress simply because we are talking about Gingrich, a Republican or a former representative of a southern state?
Yes, Gingrich’s failure to deal with Confederate perceptions may tell us much about continued resistance among white southerners in dealing with the tough questions of race, but his narrative of USCTs perhaps tells us something about white America as a whole. Ever since the release of Glory in 1989 the popular view of USCTs has revolved around their sacrifice for the Union through failed attacks against the Confederacy. We can handle challenges of discrimination from within the ranks and even hints of a unfair pay, but only if there is resolution at the end of the story. In Glory we get it in the wonderful image of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th and in Gingrich’s book we get it in his insistence on their crucial role in winning the Civil War. Don’t get me wrong, this is a story that needs to be told, but I think there is an element here that functions to assuage the insecurities of white Americans when it comes to dealing with race and I think it transcends region and politics.
It’s something that I’ve been self-conscious about as I research the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the pay crisis for my next book project. As many of you know for over a year the 55th as well as many other black units refused to accept a pay lower than what their white comrades received. In the case of the 54th and 55th they even refused their own state’s willingness to make up the difference. Not only did the men in the units go without pay as they were fighting and dying for the Union, but their families back home suffered as well. The Glory/Gingrich model treats Confederate defeat and emancipation as a bookend, but perhaps if we place this struggle withing the broader context of the civil rights struggle we can learn something new about the broad sweep of American history. At this point in the game that would constitute progress.
Just wrapped up another productive week at the Massachusetts Historical Society with collections related to the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. There is something to researching real black Civil War soldiers as opposed to deconstructing silly claims about fictitious black Confederate soldiers. The MHS has an impressive collection of correspondence among the unit’s officers. In addition, I now have access to a number of black newspapers through a deal with Accessible Archives. They include a large number of letters written by enlisted men and officers from black regiments, including the 55th. I still haven’t decided what I plan on doing with this research beyond writing a couple of articles. There is definitely a book in all of this, but we will have to see if I am the one who will write it.
I am coming to you from a cafe in downtown Boston as I make my way over to the North End for dinner. Rather than take the train I decided to walk it, which was really just an excuse to spend some time at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. This was the first time I noticed that the line of men extends behind Shaw’s horse, which you can see in this photo.