A new exhibit looks at the lives of African-American Civil War soldiers
Former U.S. Representative Cleo Fields once said, “W.E.B. Du Bois taught so that Rosa Parks could take a seat. Rosa took a seat so we all could take a stand. We all took a stand so that Martin Luther King Jr. could march. Martin marched so Jesse Jackson could run. Jesse ran so Obama could win."
But before any of that, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry fought. The regiment was one of the first groups of African-American soldiers to take part in the Civil War. On July 18, 1863, the men stormed Fort Wagner, on the South Carolina coast, near Charleston. Nearly half of the 600 soldiers who fought that day were killed, wounded, or captured. Although defeated, their bravery showed that African Americans had what it took to serve in the U.S. military. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens honored the Union soldiers and their commanding officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, in a work of art called the Shaw Memorial. The monument was completed in 1897 after 14 years of work.
The Shaw Memorial is the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., called “Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial.” The show runs from September 15, 2013, to January 20, 2014, then travels to the Massachusetts Historical Society, in Boston, where it will be on view from February 21 through May 23, 2014.
To create the life-size, bronze, bas-relief work of art, Saint-Gaudens based his depiction of Colonel Shaw on photographs. However, he hired African-American men to pose as the soldiers. It is their images that appear in the sculpture, not those of the real men of the 54th regiment. Museum curator Sarah Greenough told TIME For Kids that she developed “Tell It with Pride” to show the soldiers as they really were.
To that end, the exhibit includes, alongside the sculpture, vintage photographs of the soldiers and others who worked with them, such as doctors, nurses, and teachers. In the photos, some of the soldiers appear proud, others brave, while still others look apprehensive, if not fearful. Two photos depict young people: Alexander H. Johnson, a 16-year-old, and Henry A. Monroe, a 13-year-old who played drums. In the exhibit, says Greenough, “the simple, profound power of photography tells us about real people and shows us the faces of the 54th.”
William H. Carney served in the 54th regiment. He was America’s first African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award. At Fort Wagner, Carney carried the American flag across the battlefield. He was shot twice and hit by shrapnel. Carney’s great-great-grand nephew, Carl Cruz, visited the National Gallery of Art to pay tribute to Carney’s memory. “I had his Medal of Honor when I was a boy,” Cruz told TFK. “I used to bring it to show and tell, let kids touch it or pin it on.” The medal is on display in “Tell It with Pride.”
Colonel Fern O. Sumpter spoke at a preview to of the exhibit. She called it a part of our nation’s history, and cited the 150-year anniversary this year of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which allowed the 54th’s African-American soldiers to join the Union army and helped lay the foundation for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “I am forever grateful to the brave men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment . . . who overcame obstacles even before the first shot was fired,” Colonel Sumpter said. She commands Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, in Virginia, making her the first African-American female commander of the only Civil War fort still in operation today.
What does Carney’s descendant Carl Cruz want kids to come away with after seeing “Tell It with Pride”? He says kids should remember the nation’s history, and that the soldiers of the 54th were real people, not just pawns, or pieces, on the battlefield. For years, Cruz kept Carney’s Medal of Honor safe. Come and see it in “Tell It with Pride.”