54th Mass MemorialThis morning I sat in front of the rear of the Robert Gould Shaw and Fifty-Fourth Regiment Memorial before heading into the Boston Athenaeum for a day of writing. It is certainly not the first time I have read the inscription on the rear of the memorial, which most people miss when they visit.

This time the words, “CHEERFUL AMID HARDSHIPS AND PRIVATIONS” jumped out at me. Note that the inscription also includes the fact that the unit, along with other black regiments, protested unequal pay. It’s an important reference in the history of black Union soldiers, but it is also one that sits uncomfortably next to the claim that they remained “cheerful” during these setbacks.

They certainly did not.

In fact, as I have noted before on this blog, black soldiers responded aggressively to this discrimination. While petitions were sent up the chain of command these men also protested by refusing orders and on a few occasions their protests resulted in violent altercations with white officers.

These cases are well documented and would have been known by those who pushed for a monument to Shaw and his men after the war.

So, why was it important to depict black soldiers serving in a Massachusetts regiment as “cheerful” on a monument dedicated in Boston in 1897? If monuments tell us as much about the time in which they were dedicated, what might this particular inscription tell us about the individuals and organizations responsible for this memorial?


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11 comments… add one
  • TFSmith May 20, 2016 @ 8:59

    No, it does not, and I’m not minimizing the incongruity of it all, but I’d bet one may very well find similar useages in reference to white soldiers in the Civil War, Spanish-American, and Philippine-American conflicts in roughly the same era.


    • TFSmith May 20, 2016 @ 9:14

      Just for kicks I did a basic Google search using “the enlisted men are cheerful enough, colonel” and similar references came up regarding white volunteer units and from texts published in the 1870s and 1880s; so looks like it may have simply been a figure of speech.

      There is sort of an element of resignation that comes into play when on active duty; one can bitch and moan about the realities of such, or one can deal with it, which is something of the mark of a veteran soldier who knows the situation is lousy, but accepts that as the reality one finds oneself in and so focuses on more immediate priorities than complaints.

      Staying alive, keeping one’s comrades alive, achieving the immediate objective in combat if one is in combat, getting one’s person and/or troopers fed and sheltered, etc.

      In some ways, it is possible to read this as an endorsement of the AA enlisted mens’ ability to “soldier on” as well as their white peers and/or officers. Basically, that they the soldierly equivalents of the rest of the army, and didn’t require special handling or assignments – which may very well be how it was intended in 1897.

      Speculative, of course, but “shut up and soldier” is a theme with a long history in the US forces, from the Revolution onwards.


  • TFSmith May 18, 2016 @ 18:47

    This may just be a case of definitions changing over a time; “cheerful” dates to the Fifteenth Century, and one of the older meanings is along the lines of “hearty” or “enthusiastic.”

    Not discounting the realities that Americans of African ancestry have always had a high bar for acceptance as equals, but this may have been used simply in the sense that a later generation of GIs adopted “kwitcheryurbitchin’ ” or “embrace the suck” … hardships are to be expected on active service away from garrison, especially in the infantry, and combat is only worse.

    One can gripe or grouse (and it is the private soldier’s eternal right to do so) but it doesn’t accomplish much. There’s a Bill Mauldin where Willie and Joe are taking a breather in the middle of a detail and one says to the other something like: “I know how you feel; I was going to write a book exposing the Army once too…”


    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2016 @ 1:24

      Definitely something to think about, but I assume this definition does not imply protest. Thanks.

  • bob carey May 18, 2016 @ 14:57

    Allow me to offer a different take on this topic. I believe the inscription could simply mean that the 54th retained it’s espirit de corps throughout the war. I think that privations were greater among the USCT’s because of the prevailing attitudes toward black soldiers, by this I mean the quality and quantity of normal supplies and provisions, let alone the pay scale. The inscription may be a subtle way for the survivors to remind the future generations that the USCT’s had more than one battle to fight.

  • Kristoffer May 18, 2016 @ 6:31

    While the need to selectively choose importance is a possibility, there is also the possibility that those who made the monument were unaware of the tension and anger over pay. After all, this was over 30 years after the fact, and it’s unknown if these individuals would have known about the tension and anger even during the Civil War. For all we know, they could have been ignorant of this, and chosen to commemorate the same idealized and common theme of enduring soldiers.

  • Boyd Harris May 18, 2016 @ 6:24

    I would say that the politics of black respectability have something to do with it. “Cheerful amid hardships and privations” sounds similar to the traditional narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, in which well dressed individuals stood peacefully in the face of overwhelming racist vitriol and violence. In order for black citizens to be taken seriously in America, the bar must always be set higher. Any negative (read: natural) response to hardship could be perceived as supporting the racist argument that black people were not ready to fully participate in American society as equals. Black folk have to appear almost super human in their patience and fortitude in order to receive respect. The leaders of the black community know this and that is why they have tried to control the memory of their struggle, going all the way back to slavery. Stressing the martial abilities of the black soldier, who served “cheerful amid hardships and privations” ignores the historical reality, but it provides a great example for those in 1897 facing the growing acceptance of white supremacy within the American legal system.

    • Kevin Levin May 18, 2016 @ 6:33

      Excellent point.

      I am reminded of Carole Emberton’s work on perceptions of black masculinity after the war. The image of the loyal black soldier fighting to save the Union is encouraging on the one hand, but it also challenged prevailing assumptions of black compliance not just in the South. In other words, black militancy is a problem for whites regardless of how or why it is expressed.

      • Boyd Harris May 18, 2016 @ 6:55

        Exactly. A short list of black militancy that has “complicated” the traditional narrative:

        Frederick Douglass
        Buffalo Soldiers
        Marcus Garvey
        Robert F. Williams
        Malcolm X
        The Black Panthers

        Today we see the same perception of militancy with the Black Lives Matter movement.

        “In other words, black militancy is a problem for whites regardless of how or why it is expressed.”

        I agree, but the real struggle is that it has been internalized within certain elements of the black community. So that militancy is a problem for not only some white folk, but some black folk as well. It causes a distraction from outside threats by forcing individuals to protest the “right way” in order to achieve a satisfactory result. It distorts the natural reaction of an oppressed people.

  • Michael Aubrecht May 18, 2016 @ 5:19

    Kevin, I thought you might enjoy this piece I recently wrote about that very monument

    “…One interesting aspect of this story is found in the experiences and perspectives of African-American drummers.

    Some of these young musicians marched in the ranks of the U.S. Colored Troops while contributing in their own way. Unlike their counterparts in the South, blacks, both free and ex-slave were looked upon as soldiers and not camp servants. Grateful for their newfound freedom many Southern slaves savored the opportunity to line up in the Union ranks and raise their muskets toward their former oppressors. Free men from the North took the opportunity to serve as their brother’s keeper. Throughout the war drummer boys provided essential camp and field communications.

    One African-American drummer boy of particularly noteworthy service was A.H. Johnson. At the age of 16, Alexander H. Johnson was the first African American musician to enlist in U.S. military, joining the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers under Robert Gould Shaw. Johnson was adopted by William Henry Johnson, the second black lawyer in the United States and close associate of Frederick Douglass. After the war Johnson told an interviewer that he had “beat a drum every day he has been able since childhood.”

    According to an article titled Alexander H. Johnson: The first drummer boy (by Meserette Kentake) Johnson quickly established himself as a talented drummer as he and the rest of the rank and file learned the art of soldiering. He was with the unit when it left Boston for James Island, S.C., where it fought its first battle.

    The skirmish, along the South Carolina coast near Charleston, occurred on July 16, 1863. Johnson noted, “We fought from 7 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, and we succeeded in driving the enemy back. After the battle we got a paper saying that if Fort Wagner was charged within a week it would be taken.”

    Two days later the 54th unsuccessfully stormed Confederate-held Fort Wagner on Morris Island while sustaining massive casualties. Johnson recounted, “Most of the way we were singing, Col. Shaw and I marching at the head of the regiment. It was getting dark when we crossed the bridge to Morris Island. It was about 6:30 o’clock when we got there. Col. Shaw ordered me to take a message back to the quartermaster at the wharf, who had charge of the commissary. I took the letter by the first boat, as ordered, and when I returned I found the regiment lying down, waiting for orders to charge. The order to charge was given at 7:30 o’clock.”

    Johnson remained in the 54th until the end of the war. In the summer of 1865 he returned to Massachusetts, bringing the drum that he carried at Fort Wagner with him. Four years later he married, settled in Worcester, Mass., and organized “Johnson’s Drum Corps.” He led the band as drum major, and styled himself “The Major.”

    In 1897, a memorial to the 54th sculpted by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens was unveiled in Boston. The bronze relief depicts Colonel Shaw and his men leaving Boston for the South with a young drummer in the lead — a scene reminiscent of the July day in 1863 when Shaw and Johnson marched at the head of the 54th to its destiny at Fort Wagner. In 1904, Johnson visited the monument during an event hosted by the Grand Army of the Republic, the influential association of Union veterans. Many of those in attendance pointed out the resemblance of the young lead drummer and it is said that Johnson felt a great sense of pride for his participation in the war. Today the statute remains as a timeless tribute to both Johnson and the men he served.”

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