The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts. (Source: United States National Park Service)
The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts. (Source: United States National Park Service)
I felt it suddenly hard to breathe, and I had to look away from the screen, with tears in my eyes.

The young man I was watching had just looked at the sky, where a seagull flew against the blue and the clouds, and I already knew he was about to die.

The day of his death, as re-enacted in the heart-wrenching 1989 film of the same name as this column, was 18 July 1863. The place was Fort Wagner, South Carolina. He wore the uniform of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers. His name could have been William Tyler or James Caldwell or Robert Gould Shaw or another of the 100 names of Union soldiers who died there that day. Their names are engraved on the monument to their memory facing Beacon Street at the edge of Boston Common.

The enlisted men of the 54th were all black Americans. Many were free men in Massachusetts and nearby states, and some were escaped or emancipated slaves from the South. They relinquished the freedom they had briefly and imperfectly known to fight for the Union. By war’s end, colored troops (to use the language of that time) were 10 percent of all Union forces. They suffered casualties greater than their white compatriots. I don’t remember learning about them in American history in high school.

Shaw, the son of a wealthy Boston Unitarian Abolitionist family, wounded twice at Antietam, was their commanding officer. He was 25 years old. Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons volunteered. Shaw wrote to his parents: “The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than most of the Irish that I have had under my command. . . . We will leave the State with as good a regiment as ever marched.”

Shaw died at Fort Wagner. The black Americans around him died on their feet, not on their knees. Their valor inspired the North and justified the formation of many more all-black regiments. The Confederate commander of the fort returned the bodies of other dead officers to the Union ranks, but not Shaw’s. He was buried in a mass grave with his enlisted men. The commander meant this as an insult. Shaw’s father thought otherwise. “We would not wish him better company.”

Some of the Union men must have died in terror, and some cruelly, perhaps lying injured before the bayonet of a white Confederate soldier. Did some in their last moments call out for their mother or father — whom perhaps they had last seen as a child at slave auction? We don’t know. Those moments are lost to the ages.

Their monument in Boston, erected 32 years after war’s end, was the first in America to honor the black Union soldiers. The frieze of the soldiers’ faces, sculpted by the great Saint-Gaudens, was modeled from black Americans of Boston of his day.

The rear of the monument faces the Common. It reads “Omnia Relinquit, Servare Rempublicam.” They gave up all, to serve the Republic. Beneath those words are the names of the men who fell. One recent night, marauders painted “RIP G.F.” in black, and the ubiquitous F-word in red paint, over the base of the monument and over those names. They know not what they do.

When the monument was unveiled in 1897, Reconstruction had been abandoned and Jim Crow was suffocating and terrorizing the free blacks of the South. The prior year, all but one of the justices of the Supreme Court bent their knees to the prevailing racial orthodoxy of the times, and in Plessy v. Ferguson held that Southern states could segregate the races on public transport and in schools — “separate but equal” — without violating the Constitution.

Only one justice dissented. “The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together,” John Marshall Harlan wrote, “and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.” Brown v. Board of Education (1954), overruling Plessy, and declaring that “separate is inherently unequal,” was his vindication.

In his last view of the sky, his last conscious breath, in his cry for a mother from whom he had already been separated forever, the black American we all saw die this month could not possibly know what utterly transforming effect his death might have.

Perhaps there is a time for kneeling, though I might dissent from that gesture. But soon our elected representatives, and we ourselves, should cast off the borrowed shawls of mourning and stand straight as those soldiers marching off from Boston — to debate, write, vote, dissent, legislate, fund, de-fund and act.