Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Poetry and Remembering the Civil War – Part 2: Robert Lowell

You don’t need to look far to see that we have long been using the Civil War as a lens for viewing controversies. The display of Confederate statues and public schools being named after Confederate officers or leaders are two recent examples.

Then there is the case of the parking lot in Boston. You might wonder, legitimately, how a parking lot in Boston connected to the Civil War. And you might wonder how that parking lot inspired one of the best-known poems about the Civil War.

In 1862, the governor of Massachusetts asked prominent abolitionist Francis Shaw if his son, Robert Gould Shaw, might consider a commission to lead a free black regiment. Months later, Francis found his son, who was with the army in Virginia, and asked him to consider the commission. Robert at first refused, then reconsidered, and decided to accept it. In early 1863, he was given command of the 54thMassachusetts Infantry Regiment

By June, the regiment was in Georgia, where Shaw risked the ire of his commanding office by refusing an order to shell and fire civilian buildings in Darien, where women and children had taken refuge. The civilians were fired upon, the buildings looted, and then burned. A month later, Shaw and his regiment were outside Charleston, South Carolina, and participated in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner

The regiment showed great courage under fire, but Gould and many of his men were killed. The Confederates, intending an insult, refused to separate Gould’s body from those of his soldiers, as was the custom (officers’ bodies were returned). He was buried with his men, with the simple designation of “unknown.” After the war, the remains of all the soldiers were reinterred at Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina. Remains could not be identified, so Shaw remain buried with his men. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Top photograph: The Monument to Col. Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment on the Boston Common.

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