How Should We Represent Black Civil War Soldiers?

A bizarre attack on a beloved Boston memorial raises questions about how we portray the conflict at its 150-year anniversary.

The Shaw Memorial, on the Boston Common. (tornintwo2011/Flickr)

Earlier this week, a 38-year-old woman walked up to the Shaw Memorial on Beacon Street in Boston and splashed it with a bucket of yellow paint. This is not the first time the monument to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry has been vandalized, but this time readers may be surprised to learn that the alleged perpetrator, Rosemine Occean, is an African-American woman from nearby Quincy. A few weeks ago she was spotted attempting to break off a sword from the memorial, and in this most recent incident she indicated that she disagreed with the memorial's interpretation. After being arraigned in a Boston court it was reported that Ms. Occean would undergo psychological evaluation.

While controversy surrounding Civil War monuments and memorials, and even their defacement, is nothing new, there is something unsettling for many about a black woman defacing a site intended to single out the bravery and sacrifice of "colored" Civil War soldiers. Since 1989, Augustus Saint-Gaudens's most popular work has been closely identified with the Academy-Award-winning movie Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington. For many visitors, this site brings to mind movie scenes of the men of the 54th struggling to gain respect from their colonel and fellow white soldiers, as well as the final scenes of the unit's unsuccessful assault on Battery Wagner. In the movie itself, the image of Saint-Gaudens's memorial closes out the film as the audience learns of the crucial role that black soldiers played in helping to save the Union.

So, why would a black woman choose to deface this monument, and what exactly does she find so objectionable about how it interprets or memorializes the service of black Civil War soldiers? It is likely that we will never know, given reports concerning her mental health. But we do know that her act provoked a particular brand of outrage in Boston and elsewhere. The Shaw Memorial is unlike any other Civil War monument. In many ways, the stern and brave faces of Shaw and the men under his command, marching off to a battle that we know they will not survive, has become central to how many Americans now remember black Civil War soldiers and, more generally, the war itself.

It wasn't always this way. For much of the 20th century, the Shaw Memorial was left in disrepair. It was only after the busing crisis of the 1970s that city leaders restored it as a symbol of racial healing. Its restoration also reflected changes in our scholarly understanding of the roles of blacks in the Civil War. In comparison to other monuments such as Thomas Ball's Freedmen's Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Shaw Memorial depicted black soldiers as men who played an active role in pushing the boundaries of race and citizenship. The strong feelings that many of us feel in the wake of this event reflect our embrace of this particular narrative.

At the same time, we would do well to remember that monuments are never static sites. They are, by definition, selective representations of the past, and they are influenced by those individuals and organizations responsible for their construction and dedication. In a recent post on this website, I argued that even the Shaw Memorial and the movie that has shaped our view of it offer the public a partial interpretation of the history of this famous regiment. What they leave out, downplay, or ignore entirely might possibly be the difference between something to celebrate or condemn, regardless of race.

In contrast with the Civil War centennial, the ongoing sesquicentennial commemorations have brought the story of the 54th Massachusetts and African Americans front and center in our popular memory. That is something that all of us can celebrate and build on in our classrooms and other educational settings, but we should remember that our historical landscapes and other historic sites are always open to interpretation.

With the growing popularity of social media, we now have access to a wide array of digital tools that make it possible for Americans to share their own self-styled and highly idiosyncratic views of the Civil War. Such access means there is more than one lens through which Americans collectively are now remembering the war, especially when it comes to the traditional categories of race and region. One hopes that, as we move forward, we can at least share our ideas with one another in a civilized manner, and without resorting to the desecration of our most precious memorials.