The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

January 25, 2013

Who will lift the flag?

From our very founding as a nation, Americans have clung to stereotypes and to assumptions that history has proven simply were untrue.

Only people of substance who owned property should have the right to vote said states after the Constitution was ratified and we became a democratic nation.

Women not only had no voting rights, they were not allowed to attend medical school and become doctors.

African-American men were not capable of anything other than hard work on plantations, and certainly were not the equal of white men when it came to military service.

All these inequities we now see as utter folly were very much embedded in American society and thought in pre-Civil War America, and sometimes beyond.

But the fires of inequality can only last as long as they are stoked, and from the pages of the American Civil War this nation found out first-hand African-Americans were more than up to the task of carving out valor and glory on the field of battle

While it took two bloody years of war to convince Abraham Lincoln and many Northerners men of color could be trusted with muskets and to march into battle to help save the Union, that really didn’t transpire until January 1863, just after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Southern states.

Still, the idea of employing African-Americans on the battlefield came very grudgingly for white America.

Black men faced daunting odds, ridicule and outright scorn before abolitionists finally were able to convince the North to arm former slaves and send them off to war.

And no Union regiment in the war showed more courage than the famed 54th Massachusetts did on the sands of the South Carolina coast, a cannon shot removed from Fort Sumter.

Youthful Col. Robert Gould Shaw, son of wealthy abolitionists in the Bay State, was given command of training and leading the 54th, made up of freed black men.

Outfitted with donations raised by abolitionist leaders, the 1,000-man infantry regiment had only white officers, as sentiment — even in the North — was very much against the use of blacks in the service of the Union Army.

While popular sentiment was against them, Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew was of the opinion blacks would more than hold their own, and step up by the thousands to help end slavery.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis threw up even more roadblocks, in a December 1862 proclamation that put every African-American soldier and every one of their white officers under immediate death sentence if they were captured in battle.

But the 54th more than assuaged any fears from white America as to their mettle.

On May 28, 1863, the 54th paraded down the streets of Boston, boarding ships for the South Carolina coast.

And on July 16, the regiment repelled a Confederate infantry attack on James Island.

Two days later, the regiment met its supreme test of courage and valor.

Chosen to lead the assault on Fort Wagner, one of the most heavily fortified positions on the Confederate’s Atlantic coast, Brig. Gen. George Strong rode on horseback to the beach where the men of the 54th stood and asked: “Is there a man here who thinks himself unable to sleep in that fort tonight?”

“No!” shouted the 54th.

Strong then called out the flag bearer and grasped Old Glory. “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?”

Col. Shaw paused briefly, then stepped forward and responded, “I will.”

Deafening cheers came up from the black regiment for their 25-year-old colonel.

Leading the 54th forward toward looming death at Fort Wagner, Shaw exclaimed, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

With that, the regiment moved forward with colors waving in the sea breeze.

Unfortunately for the Union men, the attack turned out to be a futile assault on an impregnable position, and the 54th suffered heavy casualties, including Shaw, who fell leading his regiment.

Despite that, the men showed exceptional bravery and honor.

William Carney, an African-American sergeant, is considered the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions at Fort Wagner.

Despite being twice shot, Sgt. Carney recovered and returned the 54th’s American flag to Union lines.

Although the battle was lost, the 54th’s bravery paved the way for as many as 185,000 blacks to join the Union Army, gaining hard-earned respect for their fighting prowess.

Col. Shaw was buried by Confederates in a mass grave with other fallen soldiers.

That grave has since eroded into Charleston harbor, and their remains washed out to sea by Atlantic hurricanes.

Yet, in the annals of American military history, their memory lives on.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.

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