Where Death Ends and Liberty Begins: Memorial Day 2011

by Derrick G. Jeter

Above the Common in Boston, across the street from the capitol, a life sized relief—men memorialized—stands in silent vigil. It is not, as one might think, a statue of a Minuteman or one of Massachusetts’s heroic signers of the Declaration. It is a memorial to men who didn’t fully know independence but who gave their lives so their brethren might know what they didn’t.

Above the Common in Boston, across the street from the capitol, stands the Shaw Memorial. Dedicated on Memorial Day, May 31, 1897, the memorial depicts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and members of the 54th Massachusetts—an all black regiment (except for the officers) who fought and died in the Civil War.

Shaw and the 54th marched out of Boston on May 28, 1863. On that day, Shaw’s mother wept for joy: “‘What have I done, that God has been so good to me!’” [1] As famed historian Shelby Foote noted: “In less than seven weeks, however, it developed that God had not been so good to her after all, unless what she wanted in place of her son was a fine bronze statue on the Common.” [2]

On July 18, 1863, twenty-six-year-old Shaw and 600 men from the 54th assaulted Fort Wagner, South Carolina. By the end of the day, 281 men were either killed, wounded, or captured, including Shaw. He was shot through the heart just as he reach the parapet. Shaw was buried with his men in a common grave at the foot of the fort.

The Shaw Memorial faces the state capitol, on Becon Street. It is a large plaque of the young colonel and his men in profile, marching as if in review. On the opposite site of the memorial, facing Boston Common, is this inscription, written by Charles W. Eliot:

To the Fifty Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Regiment

The white officers taking life and honor in their hands cast in their lot with men of despised race; unproved in war and risked death as inciters of servile insurrection if taken prisoners, besides encountering all the common perils of camp march and battle.

The black rank and file volunteered when disaster clouded the Union cause; served without pay for eighteen months till given that of while troops; faced threatened enslavement if capture; were brave in action, patient under heavy and dangerous labors and cheerful among hardships and privations.

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.

One hundred and eighty thousand such Americans enlisted under the Union flag in MDCCLXIII–MDCCLXV.

On this Memorial Day, as we remember the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s beginning, I’m reminded of the many times I’ve stood before the Shaw Memorial. I’m reminded of the 620,000 men who lost their lives in that terrible war, of the families torn asunder, and of the scar left on our country. But I’m also reminded of all that the war wrought: a nation united and a people freed. It would take another century before black soldiers and civilians would fully realize the independence the Massachusetts 54th died to achieve. But when it came . . . oh, how sweet its taste!

Under the plaque of Shaw and his beloved soldiers are these lines from poet James Russell Lowell:

Right in the van of the red rampart’s slippery swell

With heart that beat a charge he fell

Forward as fits a man

But the high soul burns on to light men’s feet

Where death ends makes dying sweet.

Where death ends and liberty begins—there lies the sweetness of life and death. On this Memorial Day, cease for a moment and savor the sweetness of liberty, bought with the sweetness of lives not our own.

✯ ✯ ✯

In tribute to one who thankfully did not have to give the sweetness of his life for the sweetness of our liberty, but who sacrificed much so that we might live in this sweet land of liberty I offer the following from the mother of a Marine:

Hi All:

In a rush, but had to let you know, Collin is safely back at Camp Leatherneck. He and we have been waiting so long for that call! He said he prayed without stopping on the entire helicopter ride there. The helicopter also dropped off replacement troops at his Forward Operating Base. Collin said they looked so fresh and curious. He marveled that was himself 6 months ago.

He had not showered since March. He said he stared at his feet through the whole shower because he couldn’t believe the color of the water, it was that dirty.

The food at Camp Leatherneck is AMAZING. And it includes fresh fruit which he has not had while in the field.

He said it’s weird to not have to worry about where you step.

He said he did not sleep well the first night back; none of them did. I think the transition and change was too great and it was hard to relax enough.

He requested prayer for his team leader, Louis Pope and his assistant team leader, Trevor Bradley. They are still on the front lines for five more days helping the new group.

That’s it for now. THANK YOU FOR YOUR PRAYERS. Please pray for their return flights. They should leave Afghanistan mid-June.

Shelby

Ooh Rah! And will you pray?

1.Mrs. Shaw, quoted in Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian, vol. 2 (New York: Random House, 1963), 697.

2. Foot, The Civil War: A Narrative, Frederiscksburg to Meridian, vol. 2, 697.

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