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When The Tide Turned

"When the Tide Turned," was written by Martha N. McKay who was the wife of
Captain Horace McKay of the Union Army. Although written at the close of the
19th century, this book was not published until 1929. This fine account of
the heroism of Colonel Shaw and his African-American Regiment in the Civil
War was dedicated by the author to the memory of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
and his Regiment, the 54th Massachussetts.

 

Abraham Lincoln

WHEN THE TIDE TURNED IN THE CIVIL WAR

Over Boston the sun had risen for more than two hundred and thirty years, but never had its light shone more brilliantly on Faneuil Hall, and the trees on the Common, than on the morning of May 28th, 1863.

For more than two years Civil War, in the words of Wendell Phillips, "had, like Niagara, thundered to a music of its own". Of the more than two thousand battles of that war, great and small, nine hundred had been fought, and thirteen hundred were yet to be recorded. On this May morning, although it is scarcely nine o'clock, the air of Boston is full of expectation. The principal streets are brilliant with the National Colors. In the soft spring air the flags flutter, and yet one hundred extra policemen are in reserve, for it is not known how even liberty loving Boston will welcome the new regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, which is about to leave the camp at Readville and march through Boston, on its way to South Carolina.

To this first regiment of free colored men from the North is given the task of proving the efficiency of negro soldiers. Governor Andrew has already addressed to the men these words: "I know not when, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms has been committed a work so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory, as the work committed to you." The rank and file of the 54th Massachusetts were to be men of African descent, but the officers were to be not alone Anglo Saxons, they were to be also "without reproach or fear".

And now comes the sound of martial music. It is Gilmore's famous band preceding the regiment led by its young colonel, whom scarcely twenty-five years have crowned. Many look for the first time upon his youth and beauty, but there are many who know that he belongs to that American nobility which is not yet out of fashion in Boston. That aristocracy, in which culture, morality and loyalty to principles are joined to material wealth. They know also that he is the only son of Francis George and Sarah Sturgis Shaw, and that through the mar­riages of his sisters he is brother-in-law to George William Curtis, General Charles Russell Lowell and General Barlow. Knighted by his inheritance, Robert Gould Shaw was the flower of all that was noblest and best in preceding generations-and now through the narrow, picturesque, historic streets of Boston he is leading his regiment that is to be historic.

One who had seen Garrison dragged by the mob down State street, and later Anthony Burns marching back to slavery al­most hidden by his heavy guard of United States troops, now sees Garrison himself, standing in the house of Wendell Phillips, his hand resting upon a bust of the Hero of Harper's Ferry; and as the regiment passes the music changes, and the band plays "John Brown's Hymn"; and then this music is drowned in the tumult of cheers, while from windows and steps, and crowded curbstones, handkerchiefs and flags wave in token of the words which cannot be spoken.

Friends of freedom, champions of liberty, have come to Boston to witness this day. Frederick Douglas is there, bearing on his body still the scars which slavery made. He now sees his own son marching as Sergeant Major of the best drilled regiment Massachusetts has sent to the front. Whittier is there, leaving his quiet home for his first and last sight of armed men. This peace-loving poet (with a heart that could beat a charge, and eyes that could blaze with indignation at freedom's foes), wrote to Lydia Maria Child, "The only regiment I ever looked upon during this war was the 54th Massachusetts on its departure for the South. I can never forget the scene as Colonel Shaw rode at the head of his men. The very flower of grace and chivalry, he seemed to me beautiful and awful, as an angel of God come down to lead the host of freedom to victory. I longed to speak the emotions of that hour, but I dared not, lest I should indirectly give a new impulse to war."

 

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