- Historic Sites
The Northern Front
Boston is so bright a beacon of Revolutionary history that it is easy to forget the city played an equally significant role in another civil war. Dara Horn, a Harvard junior, seeks out the moral engine of the Union cause.
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
As the neighborhood climbs its way up the hill, the houses become gradually grander, and eventually the dynamic of the neighborhood becomes clear. Those living near the bottom of the hill were the servants of those who lived at its top, the Boston Brahmins, the first families of the city, who had lived there for as long as eight generations or more, the oldest and wealthiest families in town. Some of these Brahmins participated in the abolitionist movement, sometimes even with enough passion to lay down their lives. In fact, Boston’s elite families were often the only ones with the capital and leisure time necessary to engage in activism. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, when the abolitionist movement emerged in full force, Boston’s wealthiest class was making its money primarily through the city’s largest industry, textiles. The Boston area had become famous for its textile mills in Lowell and other nearby towns, where young women were sent to work in the factories by day and to learn from church instructors about how to maintain Christian virtue in the evenings, a pleasant arrangement including room, board, wages, and morality enough to ensure a young woman’s situation until she found a man to marry. But while these mills played the typical Bostonian role of cities on the hill, they made their profits by churning out cotton fabric, made with raw material harvested on the cheap by slave labor in the South.
In one of the war’s few moments of true racial equality, Shaw’s body was thrown into a ditch along with his soldiers.
The people living down the street from where Garrison first spoke, while their city may have been the strongest pro-Union contingent in the country, still owed their fortunes to Southern slavery. In fact, Boston’s abolitionists had such strong opponents that Garrison, who had publicly burned the Constitution, was later beaten in the streets of Beacon Hill, most likely by thugs sent out by the textile mafia.
At the beginning of the Black Heritage Trail is Boston’s standing song to its greatest Civil War martyr, the monument to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Shaw, a Boston Brahmin and Harvard student, was a promising young soldier in the Army of the Potomac who could have ascended the ranks of the esteemed 2d Massachusetts Regiment. Instead he chose to serve as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments to fight for the North. In one of his many letters home, Shaw told his family how happy he was with his decision: “I feel convinced I shall never regret having taken this step, as far as I myself am concerned; for while I was undecided I felt ashamed of myself, as if I were cowardly.” In 1863, when Shaw was twenty-five, his regiment fought a brutal battle at Fort Wagner, on the South Carolina coast. One quarter of the regiment died, including Shaw. In one of the few moments of true racial equality the Civil War ever saw, Shaw’s body was thrown into a ditch with those of his soldiers, many of whom had escaped from slavery.
News of his death, and of the fate of the regiment, shocked the Boston Brahmins and also inspired them. As a friend wrote in a letter shortly after the regiment’s defeat, “I have accepted it as a natural consequence when other good fellows have been killed, but Bob’s death I can’t get over. I don’t think I ever knew any one who had everything so in his favor for a happy life.” It was true. “Bob,” brilliant, handsome, from a wealthy family, and most of all popular and well liked, had a shining career and had just gotten married. His death was a personal tragedy for many, but as time passed, Shaw became less a person than a symbol of the city. When the sculpture, by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was first unveiled in 1897, the orators at the dedication included Booker T. Washington and William James. Last year, at the memorial’s hundredth anniversary, Gen. Colin Powell spoke in honor of Shaw and his soldiers.