Henry Monroe was a 13-year-old drummer boy when the 54th Massachusetts stormed a Confederate fort in a heroic but futile assault that killed hundreds from the first African-American unit formed in the North and its commander, Robert Gould Shaw.
“Like a slumbering volcano,” he wrote years later, Fort Wagner in South Carolina “awoke to action and poured forth sheets of flame from ten thousand rebel fires, and earth and heaven shook with the roar of a hundred pieces of artillery.”
One hundred and fifty after that bloodshed, 91-year-old Winifred Monroe, Henry’s only living granddaughter, heard his words ring forth today at the State House in Boston, where descendants of the 54th and state officials commemorated the regiment’s valor and showed the world that black soldiers were up to the fight.
“At 91 I feel blessed to be here, alive ... and to be here for the 54th today,” Monroe, of New York said, at the ceremony, held in front of the Beacon Hill memorial to the 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Although her grandfather died 10 years before she was born, she recalled her father printing Henry’s memoirs each week in a church bulletin at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Harlem, where Henry had once preached. “This [ceremony] helped give me a sense of what they were going through,” Winifred said.
The bronze figure of Shaw, who was white, flanked by his free black soldiers and followed by an angel overhead, glinted in the sun before Governor Deval Patrick as he placed a commemorative wreath at the memorial’s foot.
“Every governor gets to choose the portrait of a predecessor to hang in the office, I think as a source of inspiration or reminder,” he told the crowd in front of the State House steps. His pick, Patrick said, was Governor John Andrew, who had recruited the 54th regiment in 1863.
“[B]ringing black enlistees into the US Army [was] a radical idea, but one whose time had come,” he said before reading aloud a letter Andrew had written to Shaw’s father, asking Robert if he would lead the troops.
He noted the significance too that this 150th anniversary coincided with “Nelson Mandela Day,” the South African leader’s 95th birthday.
Along with Monroe, the ceremony honored several other descendants of those who helped form and lead the 54th, whose story was chronicled in the movie “Glory.”
One of those was Harry Pratt, a descendant of Norwood Penrose Hallowell, who served as lieutenant colonel of the 54th and advocated for the equal pay of his black soldiers, who only received $7 a month compared to their white counterparts’ $13.
“It is all very well, of course, to praise the bravery of these men as soldiers, but with what words may we express our admiration of the dignity, self-respect, self-control, they showed ... in the matter of pay?” Pratt read from Hallowell’s writings.
Also present were the great-granddaughters of Boston abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and John J. Smith.
Edith Garrison-Griffin, 65, of Groton said Garrison had let his son George Thompson fight in the 55th regiment, a second infantry of free black soldiers, even though he himself was a pacifist.
“He let George follow his conscience and supported him. The cause meant that much to him,” Garrison-Griffin said, urging that historical tributes should refocus energy on modern inequalities.
“Racism is still alive and well. We have to ask ourselves, ‘have we gotten anywhere?’ ” she said.
Dozens of Civil War re-enactors in South Carolina also commemorated the anniversary, portraying Union and Confederate soldiers in their struggle at Fort Wagner and placing a wreath at the Fort Wagner battle site.
In Boston, Beverly Morgan-Welch, director of the Museum of African American History, said that descendants of the 54th are a “living history” of the nation’s roots.
“It is extremely important to bring the descendants into the picture because they are a living example of how far families come through the heroic actions of their ancestors,” said Morgan-Welch.
Roxbury resident George Brown marched before the State House crowd with officers in the color guard of the reactivated 54th Regiment wearing the historic navy wool uniform that Union soldiers donned.
“It becomes very emotional when you read the letters and hear the poetry,” he said after the ceremony. “There is a real history here.”