On a warm Saturday afternoon, remembering Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead," I returned to St. Gaudens' memorial sculpture to the Mass. 54th Regiment. The memorial on the ridge overlooking the Boston Commons and across Beacon Street from the Massachusetts Statehouse is one of the great works of America's heroic age. Recalling Lowell's poem, I also saluted its bookend, Allen Tate's "For the Confederate Dead."
At the statue, I discovered a group of Civil War enactors dressed like the brave soldiers of the 54th. It turned out that the day, July 17, was the anniversary of the 54th's assault on Fort Wagner, S.C. Unfortunately, I'd missed a special ceremony in honor of the event. But I was moved at seeing the black men dressed in blue Union uniforms, and a lady dressed in 19th century gingham, and a man in a farmer's straw hat.
Then a young park ranger appeared and announced a tour of Beacon HIll, which would delve into the abolitionist movement and the black civil rights movement in 19th century Boston. The young ranger gave an in-depth analysis of St. Gaudens' sculpture, pointing out the "angel of death" floating above Robert Gould Shaw on horseback. He also mentioned the realistic portrayal of the black men's faces, along with the pine cone in the corner, the symbol of Massachusetts. A pine cone also shines from atop the statehouse's gold dome.
The tour of Beacon Hill was informative and inspiring. How brave were the black men who sheltered fugitive slaves and fought off slave hunters from the old South. We saw several historic houses where these black heroes lived, and finished the tour at an architecturally interesting building, the old African-American meeting house. The ranger took us on a walk through alleys that the slaves used for escape; and I could feel the excitement and terror they must have felt.
After the tour, I limped back to the Boston Commons and sat on a shady bench. Some young students were there, pulling off a prank of some kind. A young man sat on the bench, reading a newspaper in which he had punched a hole, to eye young lovelies going past, I assume. A young woman wore a moustache. They passed out joke brochures. I wasn't sure of the purpose, but they seemed trying to make some kind of absurdist statement.
Recovered, I wandered away from the young woman with her long dress, tennis shoes and moustache. I thought again about the park ranger, translating the Latin inscription on the St. Gaudens statue, "they gave their all in the service of the republic."