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MA Gov. Baker: Just Look Across the Street Before Discussing the Confederate Flag

June 21, 2015

Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker found himself under fire for his comments Thursday defending the Confederate flag still flying over the South Carolina capitol grounds in Charleston. But his apology to Bay State residents and the entire pathetic episode could have been avoided had Baker just looked out from the Massachusetts state house in Boston. There, just across Beacon Street, is the monument to the 54th Massachusetts regiment, among the first all-black units to see combat in the Civil War.

As the National Park Service explains, the 54th faced actual fire from real South Carolinians:

The Massachusetts 54th Regiment became famous and solidified their place in history following the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. At least 74 enlisted men and 3 officers were killed in that battle, and scores more were wounded. Colonel Shaw was one of those killed. Sergeant William H. Carney, who was severely injured in the battle, saved the regiment's flag from being captured. He was the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The 54th Regiment also fought in an engagement on James Island, the Battle of Olustee, and at Honey Hill, South Carolina before their return to Boston in September 1865. Only 598 of the original 1,007 men who enlisted were there to take part in the final ceremonies on the Boston Common. In the last two years of the war, it is estimated that over 180,000 African Americans served in the Union forces and were instrumental to the Union's victory.

That summer, Abraham Lincoln had implored his countrymen to support his promised emancipation of the slaves and the arming of African-American soldiers to help deliver on it. "You say you will not fight to free the negroes," Lincoln admonished his opponents in the North, "Some of them seem willing to fight for you." Through its courage and sacrifice, the 54th Massachusetts butchered that day at Battery Wagner helped change the course of the war and American history. As the New York Tribune later recounted:

It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts 54th had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand troops for whom it was a pioneer would never put in the field...But it did not falter.

In the monument (also shown at the conclusion of the 1989 film, Glory), the regiment's white commander Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is depicted leading his troops into battle. Like so many of his soldiers, Shaw was killed at Fort Wagner. Thinking it a humiliation, the victorious Confederates threw his corpse into a mass grave along with the bodies of the unit's black troops. But Shaw's father wouldn't have had it any other way:

The poor benighted wretches thought they were heaping indignities upon his dead body, but the act recoils upon them...They buried him with his brave, devoted followers who fell dead over him and around him...We can imagine no holier place than that in which he is...nor wish him better company--what a bodyguard he has!

When he said "my view on stuff like this is that South Carolinians can make their own call" on the Confederate flag which "still hangs there" out of "what I would call sort of tradition, or something like that," Massachusetts Governor Baker must have had his eyes on the 2020 Palmetto State primary.
They should have been looking across the street.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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