Obama Sends Wreath to African American Civil War Memorial Site (Plus Details of My Visit to the Memorial)

In response to a controversy over the honoring of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War, Barack Obama became the first president to send a wreath of flowers to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC.

As reported by the New York Times,

Last week, a group of university professors petitioned the White House to end a longstanding practice of sending a wreath to a monument to Confederate soldiers on the cemetery grounds. The petitioners, including William Ayers, the University of Illinois at Chicago education professor whose acquaintance with Mr. Obama has been controversial, said the monument was “intended as a symbol of white nationalism” and gave “encouragement to the modern neo-Confederate movement.”

Instead of ending the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate monument, historian Kirk Savage, writing in the Washington Post, offered this:

Many of my colleagues in academia are urging President Obama to pull the plug on this tradition. I doubt that he will, for the simple reason that the men buried around the Confederate memorial sacrificed, suffered and died just as the black and white soldiers of the Union did. Most of the descendants of those Confederates, whatever their political stripe today, would be loath to deny their ancestors a simple gesture of recognition.

President Obama, why not send two wreaths? One to the Confederate Memorial in Arlington Cemetery and another to the African American Civil War Memorial in the District, which commemorates the 200,000 black soldiers who fought for liberation from slavery in the Union armed forces. Here is an opportunity to remind us what real reconciliation, in this day and age, would mean. Send two wreaths with one common message: that the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slaveholders should recognize each other’s humanity, and do the hard work of reckoning with the racial divide that is slavery’s cruelest and most enduring legacy.

Obama seems to have followed Savage’s advice. As mentioned in the Times article, Obama did send a wreath to both the Confederate monument and the African American Civil War Memorial.

It remains to be seen if this will quell the controversy. As the comments to this posting on the liberal/Democratic blog Daily Kos indicate, there are many people who are upset with honoring the Confederate soldiers under any circumstances… and many people on the Democratic side who favor honoring the Confederate soldiers.

I do hope that this will result, at the least, in increased awareness of the role of blacks in the Civil War. I happen to live in Washington, DC, where the African American Civil War Memorial is located. I visited the site today (Memorial Day), and I was disappointed at how few people were visiting it. I was there for about an hour around noon, and no more than a handful of people beside me were there to visit. Note that, the Memorial is located right at a subway stop, so the site is certainly not hard to get to.

I took some video of the site, which immediately follows. The Memorial includes a life size sculpture; a wall that includes the names of all the soldiers who fought in the Civil War Colored Troops, as their regiments were called; and a small Museum.

As an aside, there were two wreaths at the site, neither of which was spectacular. It wasn’t obvious to me that either was from the White House, but I wasn’t looking for that when I made my visit. The wreaths are not quite visible in the video; I moved them aside while shooting the footage.

See also: 20 Years of Glory; In Memorial to the Colored Troopers of the Civil War

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20 Years of Glory; In Memorial to the Colored Troopers of the Civil War

This is the 20th anniversary of the Academy Award-winning film Glory, that magnificent ode to the African American soldiers who served during the Civil War. Glory is considered one of the best Civil War movies ever made, due to its outstanding cinematography, excellent use of civil war reenactments, and inclusion of the perspective of African Americans on the Civil War (which was shockingly absent in many previous Civil War films).

The film, which was released in December 1989, did a modest box-office of $26,593,580. I understand that it’s had good video rental and sale numbers, fueled in part by its use in schools.

The fact-based movie, which was directed by Edward Zwick, stars Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Cary Elwes. Washington won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film also won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing.

Glory-Morgan-Freeman
Morgan Freeman in Glory

Glory is a war film about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The 54th was one of the first formal units of the U.S. Army to be made up entirely of African-American men (not including the officers). As described in Wikipedia,

The regiment was authorized in March 1861. The 54th Massachusetts primarily was composed of free men. A number of the recruits were from states other than Massachusetts, with several coming from Pennsylvania and New York. Two of the recruits were sons of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The 54th trained at Camp Meigs in Readville near Boston. While there they received considerable moral support from abolitionists in Massachusetts including Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The film is told mainly from the viewpoint of the 54th’s Commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). The movie shows how Shaw and his black soldiers grow from an initial period of unease bred of ignorance and lack of trust, to feelings of respect and pride in each other.

In July of 1863, Shaw volunteered the 54th for the honor of leading the charge against South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, a mission that means almost certain death. The end of the film, which stunningly showcases the horror and destructiveness of war, is a classic piece of moviemaking.

One of the most chilling and memorable scenes in the movie is the flogging of Private Trip, a runaway slave played by Denzel Washington, for insubordination. When Trip defiantly removes his shirt so that he can be whipped, it reveals a back filled with scars from prior beatings. These scars symbolize both the horrors of slavery, and the desire to face all afflictions, no matter the source, in order to achieve freedom.

Historians have pointed out that flogging was banned in the Union Army in 1861, and that it was unlikely that a private like Trip would have been whipped, at least by someone such as Colonel Shaw, who was known to be a stickler for rules.

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