Spray painting and destroying monuments has been a thing these days, instigated by rage over the death of George Floyd. We’ve heard about the beheading, burning and drowning of a Christopher Columbus statue in Richmond, the furor over the Abraham Lincoln Emancipation statue in Boston, where a resident has initiated a petition to demand its removal because the slave figure on the monument appears subservient to Lincoln.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a statue of Ulysses S. Grant was toppled by rioters although Grant led forces to defeat the Confederacy and as President, clamped down on the Ku Klux Klan.
Yes, ironies abound.
Earlier this month, protestors defaced the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th on Boston Commons. This one shook me. I’ve seen this monument on visits to Boston. It’s considered one of the nation’s greatest pieces of public art to come out of the Civil War.
The disrespect reminded me of when vandals struck a country graveyard when I was a child. I remember my mother’s distress upon driving out to the cemetery in Shelby County, IL, where four generations of our family were buried. Vandals had toppled most all of the tombstones. Investigations showed rope marks and tire tracks. The old marble stones had toppled easily, torn from their bases, and of course some broke into pieces. Stone ornaments on top of my great-great grandparents were snapped off and shattered. Small marble slabs marking their grandchildren’s graves weren’t immune to the vandals’ rage. They lay face-down on the grass, like victims of a massacre.
I know, they were just stones, right?
My mother paced about as she surveyed the destruction, covering her mouth, moaning and crying. I had never seen her so outraged. Who could desecrate a cemetery? What kind of sick mind would do such a thing?
My ancestors were farmers who had come West by covered wagon to till the soil and raise a family. These were our people. Their monuments were damaged, their graves disrespected. This business was personal.
The sheriff investigated, but no one was ever arrested. Township taxpayers had to cover the cost of repairing dozens of grave markers though the stones were never fully “restored.” Once broken, weathered old marble can’t be made new again, just as I cannot un-see what I saw in that country cemetery more than 50 years ago.
A similar outrage washed over me when I saw photos of graffiti marring the memorial for the 54th Massachusetts in Boston. I’ve seen it on visits to Boston, a bronze relief depicting Black recruits led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw on horseback.
You may remember Shaw. He and his unit were portrayed in “Glory,” the 1989 film starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. I remember seeing it at the Carolina. The movie was inspiring portrayal of an overlooked chapter in American history.
After President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, a thousand men signed up for the Union Army. Had any of them been captured in the South, they would have been enslaved or murdered, but the cause of freedom was so important to them, they signed up anyway. The 54th MA would prove instrumental in the attack on Ft. Wagner near Charleston, SC. Thirty of the men were killed in action on July 18, 1863–just two weeks after Gettysburg. William Carney, an African-American sergeant with the 54th, is considered the first Black recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day in recovering and returning the unit’s U.S. Flag to Union lines.
Those Black lives should matter.
The bronze portion of the Shaw memorial was created by famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and has stood on Boston Commons since 1897. Saint-Gaudens worked 14 years to complete the bas-relief bronze using African-American models to show the soldiers as human beings, not caricatures. That gesture alone was a big deal in the days of Jim Crow.
Now “BLM,” “George Floyd” and obscene graffiti cover the monument—and the plywood covering since erected to protect the monument during restoration.
I have no idea what George Floyd’s death has to do with the 54th Massachusetts or the Saint-Gaudens monument. I don’t know why the memory of one of America’s first African-American infantry units should be cheapened with spray-painted vulgarities.
I guess it’s what happens when the mob rules.