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Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki

The second freedom trail

While Massachusetts is well-known as the gateway to the Revolution, it’s also rich in Civil War history

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By Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki
May 29, 2011

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IN A litter-strewn park in Boston’s Readville neighborhood, a modest granite marker tells a story that would have its own museum in many states: The nation’s first all-black army regiment trained for its deployment to the battlefields of the Civil War on that out-of-the-way spot, once known as Camp Meigs.

The valor of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was immortalized in the movie “Glory,’’ and has a monument on Beacon Hill. But plans to turn the campsite where the black volunteers actually gathered into a 2.8-acre memorial have stalled.

Massachusetts proudly wears the title of cradle of liberty — but applies it only to the events leading up to the Revolutionary War. In fact, the Commonwealth was twice the cradle of liberty: winning freedom from the British, and then, eight decades later, leading the push for the new nation to live up to its founding ideals in the Civil War.

But while the roles played by Minutemen in the American Revolution are well-known — connected by the red-brick ribbon of Boston’s Freedom Trail — there is nothing similar to link together the state’s immense abolitionist and Civil War heritage, a void the state should work to fill as the nation celebrates the war’s 150th anniversary.

Before the war, Massachusetts abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison helped organize resistance to slavery; a Boston publisher released “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’; Bay State politicians like Charles Sumner spearheaded the Union cause in Congress. Once the war began, volunteers like Clara Barton answered the call for volunteers, staffing the nursing corps. The armory in Springfield produced millions of the weapons carried by Union soldiers. A fort in Boston Harbor guarded high-profile Confederate prisoners. Julia Ward Howe, who lived on Beacon Hill, wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’’

These pieces fit together into a rich story — but one that isn’t reflected in most tourist maps. The countless war memorials on town greens across Massachusetts attest to poignant individual sacrifices, but they but don’t do justice to the state’s enormous collective effort.

The state should be thinking about ways to link sites like Readville into a larger narrative that promotes the state’s exceptional role in the eventual Northern victory and end of slavery. There is ample precedent; many states in the South already offer websites with guides, driving itineraries, and bike tours of battlefields and other war sites. And Boston’s Freedom trail itself, which was first proposed in a 1951 newspaper column, provides a successful model.

It’s true that no battles were fought in Massachusetts. Yet the war of ideas that preceded the action on the battlefield was headquartered here, and much of the North’s leadership was Bay State-born. Their contribution to the second American Revolution deserves the same recognition as the heroes of the first.

Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki are regular contributors to the Globe editorial pages.