Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Bits and Bobs about ‘Tell It With Pride’

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My thanks to anyone reading this for tuning in. 54th Tell It With PrideWEB

In the Town & County section of Tuesday’s Free Lance-Star, I promised a few more thoughts about “Tell It With Pride,” the fabulous exhibit that’s about to close at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. As of Tuesday morning, there are a little less than seven days left before it will be packed up and shipped north for display at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

If you haven’t seen the show, waste no time — go!

If you have seen it, seriously consider going again. I recently did, and don’t regret a minute of the trip, even with the usual fun-and-games of travel on our stretch of Interstate 95.

I’ll blog more about the exhibit all through this week, but here are a few quick odds and ends that we couldn’t fit into Tuesday’s print story:

– If all this show did was simply to make more people aware of the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, that would be enough.

But its greatest virtue is, as Eric Gibson wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, that its “purpose is to dispel the shadows of anonymity” enshrouding the men of the regiment. 3596-090 WEBIt makes these soldiers real, from the moment you approach from the West Building’s West Garden Court and are greeted by two banners bearing the likenesses of two members of the 54th.

Because the individual soldiers’ original daguerrotypes and ambrotype portraits are small, visitors have to draw near to study their faces and eye them properly. People spent more time carefully looking at images and artifacts and reading the labels than in most exhibitions, of any kind, that I’ve seen over the decades.

And so the men of the regiment, of whom only a few dozen photographs survive, in that way cease to be anonymous. And that, all by itself, is a great public service. 54thMassPoster

– The show occupies only two galleries, but its documents, images and artifacts pack a wallop. And its centerpiece, the artist’s plaster model of Boston’s Shaw Memorial, is a show-stopper.

– In one case, seeing Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s sword placed beside portraits of his officers and drummer boys gives it harmony. But that two particular letters flanks the ends of the weapon–one the letter notifying Shaw’s parents of his death in the attack on Fort Wagner near Charleston, the other a letter from Lt. John W.M. Appleton to President Lincoln demanding equal pay for equal service for the 54th’s black troops–give the display great emotional power.

– Perhaps the most moving items in the exhibition, though, is Lewis Hine’s 1920s photograph “Black Family by Fireplace, From the Series ‘Southern Negroes.’ ” As these parents and their children gather in their home’s parlor, a large framed photograph of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial hangs above their mantelpiece. Like living-room portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee or Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, that image obviously carried great meaning for many people well after the monument’s dedication in 1897.

– I couldn’t help but note the irony that if one approaches Room 25 from a neighboring room full of 18th-century portraits, the doorway to “Tell It With Pride” is flanked by oils of Presidents Jefferson and Madison, both lifelong slave-holders. Some of the men of the 54th Massachusetts were former slaves.

– The Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC, which grew from the wartime camps of formerly enslaved people who escaped north, proudly bears Colonel Shaw’s name. Before Harlem’s heyday, it was widely considered the East Coast center of African-American intellectual and cultural life. Today, it may be best known as the home of Ben’s Chili Bowl, the African American Civil War Memorial at the eastern entrance to the U Street Metro station and the nearby, thought-provoking African American Civil War Museum.

– If you go and see “Tell It With Pride,” be sure to pick up one of the exhibit’s free brochures–an excellent publication and a handsome keepsake–from the rack near the signed copy of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. A PDF version is available here.

Images: Courtesy, National Gallery of Art