It may be considered an act of vandalism to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, but it is truly a whole other—and special—kind of vandalism to raise that flag up on a particular memorial in Boston, Massachusetts.
The battle flag was found Sunday night attached to the memorial for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment — the first black troops organized in the North during the Civil War — with the flag having been placed over the sword on the figure of the white commanding officer Shaw. The monument is located across the street from the Massachusetts State House.
The Boston Globe reports that Melissa Carino, a resident of Lowell, reached up and removed the offending flag at 10:30 p.m. — and threw it into a garbage can. Police were also called to the scene to investigate.
The 54th Regiment was brought into popular awareness by the 1989 movie Glory, which starred Matthew Broderick as Shaw, and Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman as soldiers in the regiment. The movie vividly depicted the deaths of Shaw and many of his troops on July 18, 1863, when they were at the head of a charge on Fort Wagner — notably near Charleston, South Carolina, the city where the recent massacre at a historic black church by a confessed white supremacist instigated a widespread, public backlash against the Confederate flag.
Black troops, and their white commanding officers, all courted grave risk in the Civil War. The Confederate government officially did not even regard black U.S. Army regiments as legitimate soldiers in a theater of war — instead, that regime considered them to be part of a slave rebellion, and their white officers were thus regarded as criminal inciters. As such, they were particularly targeted to be killed in the field, and would not be treated as prisoners of war. (They were often slaughtered even when they attempted to surrender.)
As an additional insult, their bodies were often desecrated — and the 54th Regiment was no exception. As detailed in Albert E. Williams’ book, Black Warriors: Unique Units and Individuals, after the events of that battle at Fort Wagner, “Confederate soldiers ￼buried most of the Union dead in a mass grave.”
Colonel Shaw’s body was stripped of clothing and buried with the dead of his beloved 54th. When a request was made to the fort’s commanding officer to allow retrieval of the colonel’s body, the response was, “We have buried him in the trench with his n*****s.” The Confederates thought this to be the ultimate insult to Colonel Shaw and to the Union Army, but in the light of history, it has become a monumental honor. Colonel Shaw’s father would later state, “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he is, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company.”
Historian Kevin Levin also details the significance that the 54th Regiment held after the Civil War and into Reconstruction:
What often goes unnoticed, however, is the crucial role the regiment – along with its sister regiment, the 55th Mass. – played during the immediate postwar period. Both regiments were stationed in South Carolina from April through August 1865. Their responsibilities included managing relationships between former slaves and owners to ensure the arrival of a new crop and safeguarding government buildings and supplies. Most importantly, the two regiments played a vital role in protecting former slaves from their former masters who hoped to rebuild white supremacy on a new foundation.
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