Photographer's Note

This is my 200th TE post, and in honor of it I'm giving you an important slice of Massachusetts and US history with this shot.

The American Civil War was a complicated conflict that many now simply believe was 'about slavery' - that the South was fighting to keep African Americans in bondage and the North was fighting to free them. While part of that statement - that the South was fighting to retain the institution of slavery - is true, the second part is not quite as clear cut. At the start of the war, almost all Northerners - including President Abraham Lincoln himself - would have happily accepted allowing slavery to continue in the South in exchange for preserving the Union of states. Only as the war dragged on did it become increasingly clear to Lincoln himself that the country could not simply be stitched back together as if nothing happened; furthermore, he realized that to truly force the South to return, he had to destroy its most valuable institution: slavery itself.

In late 1862, Lincoln drafted a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which promised to free all slaves in areas that had been in rebellion which were then recaptured by the United States. This had the effect of turning the Union army into a liberating force, and making the conflict itself about slavery in a way that it had not previously been. Part of the Emancipation Proclamation also called for the acceptance of African American soldiers into the Union army, something that had previously not been done.

Despite a harsh reaction from the Confederacy, who threatened to summarily hang any African American soldier and any white officer leading them upon capture - and despite an at times hostile and unaccepting Northern white population - thousands of African Americans signed up for service in the war against slavery. One of the first official all-black units was the Massachusetts 54th, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a prominent Boston abolitionist family. The 54th fought with bravery and immense success, leading them to volunteer for and be chosen to lead the raid on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. It was, in effect, a suicide mission, and the fort was in fact never taken. The 54th lost a third of their number in the assault. But the bravery and sacrifice they showed went a long way toward winning acceptance - though far from full equality - for African Americans in the United States.

Now to the shot itself. Pictured is a relief sculpture of the MA 54th, erected in 1897 across the street from the Massachusetts State House. When it was unveiled, the surviving members of the 54th - then in their 50s, 60s and 70s, gathered on Beacon Street for a parade. While the statue focuses on Colonel Shaw, the white commander, the sculpture is often noted for its proud depiction of the black soldiers who fought in the unit; even in 1897 a positive depiction of an African American in the United States was a rarity. It has remained one of Boston's most treasured and well known statues.

On the day I visited the statue, I met the man pictured here, Gerard Grimes, a Boston Public School teacher who gives up a large amount of his time to helping to educate the public about this often overlooked corner of American history. We spoke for a while, about the statue, the war itself, and public education, as we're both teachers. He's there quite often; in fact I was by the area just the other day and saw him talking to more passers by. Mr. Grimes can be seen here wearing a Civil War era sergeant's uniform, standing beneath the statue of Shaw, who is atop the horse.

Sorry for the long note, but this is an area of American history I find deeply fascinating, so thank me for not going on even longer!

Addendum: I failed to point out in my note that today is important for a couple of other reasons here. First, it is the annual celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the noted American civil rights leader who was the face of a wide-ranging movement to remove institutional segregation from the American South - and a less-well-known campaign to remove unofficial segregation from the American North - in the 1950s and 1960s, until his assassination in 1968. It is also the day of the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, whose election and re-election would have amazed, thrilled and stunned both the soldiers of the MA 54th and Dr. King.

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Additional Photos by Andrew Lipsett (ACL1978) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 884 W: 75 N: 1695] (7511)
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