- 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
When you look out at Boston Common from the street right below the gold-domed statehouse, the Saint-Gaudens memorial alters your view like a misplaced window in a Magritte painting, a rectangular window that looks out on a century-old moment in time. In high relief, surround- ed by his soldiers, Colonel Shaw sits astride his horse, his back straighter than the rifles his troops are carrying. But while the rest of the sculpture’s bronze men stare stoically ahead, Shaw’s eyebrows strain at the corners of his face like those of a child trying not to cry. It must have been one of those anticipatory instants, this moment that the sculptor has framed in this marble window, a moment right before a tremendous change. In the monument he sits in bronze on his horse below an archaic angel as if uncomfortably trapped, frozen in the instant right before both he and the nation changed forever. The sculpture is a memorial to soldiers who died for the freedom of relatives and friends whom they had left behind in slavery, but it is also a memorial to Bob, the college boy who made a strange choice and ended up in a ditch, the twenty-five-year-old kid who proved to the entire nation what Boston had been trying to prove for the previous two hundred years: that some things are right and some things are wrong.
I guess that’s why I couldn’t stop staring at that window on Boston Common. He was just a guy, just Bob, a college kid like me, but somehow he had succeeded in doing what everyone my age dreams of doing. He had proved to the world that he wasn’t a kid anymore. When William James spoke at the monument’s dedication, he described one of Shaw’s final moments: “Walking up and down in front of his regiment, he briefly exhorted them to prove that they were men.” Somehow they proved it, and I think that if they had lived, they would have proved it too. Bob has gone from being Bob to being Robert Gould Shaw, the man, not the boy, who despite his hesitations and personal prejudices still managed to shake the nation.
The Saint-Gaudens memorial is not the only shrine to Shaw in the city. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, around the corner from the statue of Charles Sumner in Harvard Square, is Memorial Hall, an imposing brick edifice that comes very close to being a secular cathedral, built both to honor knowledge and to remember the Union dead. If you enter Memorial Hall through its giant oaken portals, as most visitors do, you will find yourself inside Harvard’s holiest site and its own private shrine for its Union soldiers, the sanctified Memorial Transept. Except for a few minutes on the hour each day when students come trooping out of Sanders Theatre, the lecture hall to the right, or out of Annenberg, the sprawling and stunning freshman dining hall to the left (take a peek inside to see the superb stained-glass restoration), the Memorial Transept stands empty and silent, and voices in this hallway, like voices in a cathedral, tend to evaporate into whispers toward the vaulted ceiling. The only light during the day comes from two stained-glass rose windows casting burgundy and blue shapes onto the marble floor. But the walls, lined with black walnut paneling and towering Latin inscriptions, are marked off at eye level by slabs of white marble, each of which is carved and painted with the name of a Harvard graduate who died to preserve the Union.
The Memorial Transept was the center of a policy fight two years ago as Harvard tried to decide whether to add the names of those students who had fought and died for the Confederacy or to maintain the dark vessel of a room as a shrine to the Union dead. While Harvard’s Civil War legacy is hardly impeccable by modern standards—a fair number of professors fought vehemently against the abolitionist line—the university has since chosen to leave the Memorial Transept alone, and I think rightly so. For many Bostonians the Civil War was less a senseless tragedy than an apocalyptic battle, a fight between the sinners and the saints. To record the names of the enemy, even if they were alumni, would mean compromising the idea that the war had been a matter of right versus wrong. And Boston has rarely been a place for moral ambiguity.