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.