Statues all across America have been pulled down and graffitied recently, as anti-racist protestors have sought to grapple with American history. Many of these statues depict straight-forwardly racist individuals, and were erected by racists for the purposes of defending racism. Confederate monuments were largely built in the early 1900s and then in the 1960s, by white supremacists fighting against upsurges in black struggle (1). However, there are two particular monuments which have come under attack that are particularly interesting, as they were intended to glorify black emancipation: the Emancipation Memorial and the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment.
It isn’t difficult to see the objection to the Emancipation Memorial at first glance. Abraham Lincoln is shown holding the Emancipation Proclamation while looking down at a kneeling black man clad only in a loincloth and broken chains. Despite being intended to celebrate the liberation of black Americans, the monument seems to reproduce the idea of Lincoln as the benevolent white patriarch handing freedom down to the grateful but powerless slaves, portraying them as mere beneficiaries of this kindness. The monument demonstrates in microcosm the confused and inadequate attempts to grapple with the legacy of slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War, and the history of its construction and unveiling reveals further contradictions.
The first financial contribution for the statue came from the ex-slave Charlotte Scott living in Ohio and more black people started to donate, although the campaign was quickly taken over by white-led organisations, who were to call the shots. It was reported that Scott had given money “to build a monument to good Massa Lincoln”. The sculptor was Thomas Ball, and his original design was seen as portraying the freed slave as too passive: he changed the man’s arm to an outstretched fist, remodeled the face on the former slave Archer Alexander, and removed the liberty cap.
Archer Alexander was a real historical figure, and his story complicates the idea of Lincoln as saviour. Alexander was a slave in Missouri, one of the four slave states to not break away with the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War. Many of the slave owners in Missouri were however sympathetic to the Confederacy, unsurprisingly, and in 1863 Alexander told Union soldiers that a bridge they were to cross had been sabotaged by Confederate sympathisers. His owner discovered this and Alexander fled captivity. In 1861 the Union General Frémont declared the emancipation of all slaves belonging to Confederate sympathisers in Missouri, but Lincoln reversed this and soon after dismissed Frémont. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing all slaves in the Confederacy but leaving those in loyal states such as Missouri in bondage. Archer Alexander was not freed by Lincoln but by his own bravery, and lived his life not down on one knee but on his feet.
The Emancipation Memorial was unveiled in 1876, and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke to a crowd of 25,000 people. The officially published pamphlet of this speech, preserved by the Smithsonian Institution, shows that Douglass recognised the contradictions in Lincoln. Whilst also making clear his gratitude to “the great liberator” Lincoln, he harshly (but entirely fairly) attacked Lincoln as “pre-eminent the white man’s President, entirely devoted the the welfare of white men”, who was “willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty”. Addressing the white members of the audience, he said: “You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity.” The official publication of Douglass’s speech has no mention of the statue itself (2), but the historian Kirk Savage writes that Douglass complained in his speech that the statue “showed the negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom” (3).
The statue is unclear and somewhat open to interpretation as to what it is attempting to portray. There was evidently some effort made to depict the agency of the freed slaves through a clenched fist, and due to the static nature of statues we cannot tell if the man is in the process of rising to his feet or remains supplicant. This image is literally overshadowed by the imposing figure of Lincoln wielding his Emancipation Proclamation, the very document which failed to free Alexander. It should be noted that in the Union’s slave states exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation black men were freed if they enlisted as soldiers: almost 60 percent of black men in Kentucky joined the Union Army.
This is not merely a clumsily designed monument, but a reflection of the contradictory ideas which defined the period of Reconstruction. After the Civil War there were struggles over what the post-slavery South would look like. Radical Republicans supported a programme of land redistribution away from the former planters to former slaves and poor whites, but proponents of conciliation with the former planters such as President Johnson won out, and by 1877 Reconstruction had entirely collapsed. This period was a short-lived breath of freedom for black people, but even then black equality was not complete or universal.
Last Tuesday, Washington D.C.’s delegate to the House of Representatives Eleanor Norton announced that she would be writing a bill to have the statue removed. Over the last few days there have been protests around the statue, and calls for the crowd to tear it down. A number of alt-right counter-protesters also attended, including the conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, filming arguments between protestors and two older black men stood in front of the statue, one of whom was dressed as Frederick Douglass.
Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts
The second case to discuss is in Boston, the memorial to Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts regiment. Back in May, protesters painted anti-racist and anti-police slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Fuck 12” on the base of the monument, although the bronze relief was already covered up with plywood due to recent conservation efforts.
The 54th Massachusetts (read more about them at bit.ly/black-soldiers) was a black regiment largely composed of black soldiers living in freedom, with a number of former slaves, although it was led by white officers. These soldiers refused pay until it was equal to that of white soldiers, and faced murder, torture, and enslavement if captured by Confederate forces. Nearly half of the regiment fell at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, which unbeknownst to the soldiers came just a few days after anti-black riots in New York. The commander of this attack, General Truman Seymour, placed the 54th Massachusetts at the front, reportedly saying “put those damned niggers from Massachusetts in the advance; we may as well get rid of them one time as another”.
Originally, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens wanted to do a traditional statue commemorating Shaw alone on horseback, but Shaw’s parents objected to this. He had been a colonel who died alongside his men on foot, whilst the men on horses were commanders who stayed out of the battle; Shaw’s parents also rejected the idea that he be portrayed without his men, and refused the offer to have him removed from the mass grave with his soldiers. Saint-Gaudens decided to portray a relief of Shaw on horseback alongside his men, but as the project went on he took more and more interest in the black soldiers, trying to depict them as distinct and human figures.
Most of the men from the regiment were dead by the time Saint-Gaudens came to sculpt the monument, so he found dozens of black men to sit as life models. He shows his prejudices about these models in his memoirs, leaning into various black stereotypes in his descriptions of them. Despite this, he went to a supreme effort to portray them accurately and respectfully as against the typical derogatory caricatures that black faces in white art usually were at the time.
The image of the white Shaw seated on horseback above the black troops could understandably cause some unease. These men are not just an anonymous crowd however, but carefully sculpted, although their names were only carved on the monument in 1982, 85 years after it was unveiled (the names of the white officers were on the memorial from the start). Elevation of commanders above the rank and file is nothing exceptional in a military memorial, but there was unmistakably a racialised divide between Shaw and his men. Unlike the Emancipation Memorial however, this depiction comes not from condescension on the part of the sculptor, but the truth. There was no question of higher promotion for the black soldiers, and many white contemporaries would have seen Shaw as innately superior to his men.
The inscription on the back of the monument from Charles W. Norton is worth quoting here in full:
THE WHITE OFFICERS TAKING LIFE AND HONOR IN THEIR HANDS CAST IN THEIR LOT WITH MEN OF A 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 WHITE TROOPS · FACED THREATENED ENSLAVEMENT IF CAPTURED · WERE BRAVE IN ACTION · PATIENT UNDER HEAVY AND DANGEROUS LABORS · AND CHEERFUL AMID 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 M·D·C·C·C·LXIII - M·D·C·C·C·LXV
There was a widespread fear that black soldiers would not be up to the task of war, based in large part on racial prejudices. The conduct of the 54th Massachusetts at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner was essential in changing northern perceptions of black soldiers, and by the end of the war there were just short of eighty black commissioned officers. The notion that white society felt that African Americans needed to prove their worth through battle is jarring today, but history is as it is.
The memorial to the 54th Massachusetts is of an entirely different order to the Emancipation Memorial. Kirk Savage is right to say that Saint-Gaudens made ‘the black body more than a mere foil to whiteness’, whereas Thomas Ball failed to do so. Whilst it retains much of its time’s historical baggage, it is a moving tribute to heroes who knew exactly what their fight meant before those leading the Union Army did.
These two statues are far from typical examples. They are attempts of varying success to commemorate the liberatory aspect of the Civil War, put up at times when white reaction had all but defeated Reconstruction (4). The vast majority of statues which have come under fire do not have such a complex origin, and are largely of slavers, segregationists, and colonisers.
Statues are a lot more than historical artifacts. They are political objects which convey how a society felt it needed to commemorate itself, and continue to transmit some message for as long as they stand. The debates and struggles around these statues are much more important for public awareness of history: how many more people know about Edward Colston and the Royal African Company now than did before the 7th of June?
This article doesn’t have any prescriptions for what should happen to the two statues. The statue of the Emancipation Memorial tells us something quite important about how limited the perspectives of black emancipation were after the Union victory, but it’s easy to understand the objection to a statue which diminishes the role black people played in their own liberation. There’s a much stronger case for defending the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts, but caterwauling about the graffiti on it shouldn’t be anyone’s top priority.
Popular movements are messy, inexact, and have conflicting ideas within them. There is no indication to be found online as to whether the memorial was purposefully defaced due to a political grievance, or just as collateral damage. History is important, whether it was made in 1863 or 2020.