We’ve all heard about Boston drivers, right? That they take no prisoners? Also, Boston consistently tops “worst cities for drivers” lists: its roads are safety hazards and ridiculously congested, and there’s absolutely no parking anywhere.
Well let me tell you: at 8:00 am on Memorial Day Monday, there were absolutely no cars on the road in Boston. Its roads were still difficult to navigate – detours and cement construction barriers pop up with no warning – but with my trusty GPS, Gloria Penelope Satterswaite (so named by Mr. History Tourist, after a primary school crush), guiding us and with no other cars around to make sudden turns and lane changes difficult, we zipped to the Boston Museum of Art, mid-town, in short order.
The museum didn’t open until 10 and the tiny parking lot adjacent was empty. We took a prime spot, then walked to the light rail/subway station that was directly across from the museum entrance. We were going to spend the two intervening hours at Boston Common, where resides Augustus Saint Gauden’s memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
The train/subway stop at the Boston Museum was above ground and there was no ticket machine. We did a quick iPhone internet search — how did Columbus cross the Atlantic without a GPS and Google — and learned that we could pay on the train. We confirmed this with a couple near us who looked like locals. Sure enough, just like a bus, there was a fare machine next to the driver. It doesn’t make change, though, so the city of Boston got an extra 15 cents from me.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment memorial, dedicated in 1897, is located on the northeast corner of the Common, across from Boston’s city hall. The 54th was the first African-American regiment raised during the Civil War in the north. They weren’t the first African-American regiment overall because there had been 3 African American regiments raised for the Union in Louisiana a year earlier. The 54th is famous for leading the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, where many of them, including their white commander, Robert Shaw, were killed. They gained 20th century fame in 1989 with the release of the film Glory, with Mathew Broderick as Shaw and Denzel Washington in an Oscar winning turn as a runaway slave-turned-soldier.
A plaster casting of the memorial is on loan from the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire to the National Gallery of Art in DC and I make it a point of going to visit it every few months. But here was my chance to see the real thing. The memorial shows the regiment marching down Beacon Street (where the memorial is located) on May 28, 1863, when they left Boston for South Carolina. In less than two months, almost 50% of them would be dead, wounded or captured at the Battle of Fort Wagner.
The back of the monument says, in part:
“The White Officers taking life and honor in their hands cast in their lot with men of a despised race unproven in war and risked death as inciters of servile insurrection if taken prisoners….
“The Black rank and file volunteered when disaster clouded the Union Cause. Served without pay for eighteen months till given that of white troops. Faced threatened enslavement if captured….
Together they gave to the Nation and the World undying proof that Americans of African descent possess the pride, courage and devotion of the patriot soldier.”
Then a list of all of the officers and men of the 54th.
We took a slow wander around the Common and on the other side, we came upon a memorial of another kind. Each year, for Memorial Day, the Massachusetts Military Heroes group plants a garden of flags in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the Common. There’s one flag for each Massachusetts soldier or sailor who has died in service since the Revolutionary War. This year, there were 37,000 flags.