The memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry is a masterpiece of American art. It is also a moving monument to the sacrifice of soldiers in war. It is however also a seminal moment in the history of race relations in the United States that illustrates a core narrative at the heart and soul of our larger Civil War story.
My original wartime photo of Maj. John Whittier Messer Appleton of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry was delivered to the National Gallery of Art this afternoon at 12:30. The image will be part of a new exhibit, Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, that opens next month. Here, Loans and Exhibitions Conservator Bethann Heinbaugh performs a condition check. She noted a watermark in the upper left of the image, a nick in the lower edge of the mount, and pencil markings on the back of the image. Behind her are paintings from the NGS storage which will soon be digitized.
I took this photo of Maj. Appleton just before leaving the Gallery. Visible here is the paperwork associated with the loan. The acetate sleeves are mine.
My latest contribution to the New York Times series Disunion is the story of Sgt. William Harvey Carney of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry and how he came to say these immortal words at Fort Wagner.
Carney climbed the rampart with the Stars and Stripes. “All around me were the dead and wounded, lying one upon top the other,” he observed, describing the scene. “It seemed a miracle that I should have been spared in that awful slaughter. When I recovered from my semi stupor, on account of the scenes of blood about me, I found myself standing on the top of the embankment, all alone. It were folly for me to try to advance, so I dropped on my knees among my dead comrades, and I laid as low and quiet as possible.”
Carney planted the bottom of the flagstaff into the ground as musket bullets and canister shots plowed into the earth near his feet and sprayed sand into the air. “I was almost blinded by the dirt flying around me and nearly distracted by the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying men about me. As soon as I could distinguish anything in the darkness, I could see dimly on one side a line of men mounting the ramparts and going down into the fort. I thought they must be our own men, but in the light of a cannon flash I saw they were the enemy.”