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When The Tide Turned

Lt. Lowell Putnam

Another witness of this march through Boston wrote, "I could not help contrasting his fair hair and delicate refined features with the dusky faces of his soldiers, and I thought of him as the type of the Anglo-Saxon race offering itself in sacrifice for the African. I thought of what he was going to encounter, and it seemed to my fancy he was the young angel Michael of Guido's picture, trampling down Satan, yet still re­taining a sweet and noble expression."

Young as he appeared, this fair leader of the first dark regiment had already experi­enced two years of hard service as a soldier; nor was he unaccustomed to the wild en­thusiasm which often seeks to veil the ter­rible features of war. As he received this ovation in the streets of Boston, perhaps his thoughts went back to that April morning in 

 New York City in 1861; that morning when the Easter bells had scarcely ceased to ring the glad announcement of Nature's resurrection, when Broadway suddenly blossomed with flags, and the famous New York seventh hastened away to the defense of Washington. In its ranks marched the flower of the youth of New York, Theodore Winthrop and his brother, and two brothers of George William Curtis, Phillip Schuyler and Robert Gould Shaw. Wrote Mr. Curtis, "If we lose Washington tonight, or tomor­row, as we probably shall, remember that we have taken New York. This day has been beyond description; the statue of Washington held in its right hand the flag­staff of Sumter, and the only cry is "Give us arms". Again he writes, "The seventh regi­ment went blessed and wept over; mothers' eyes glistened at the windows upon the glis­tening bayonets of their boys below. I saw a thousand men marching as one hero, and they marched for justice, and God was their Captain". Theodore Winthrop said, "It was worth a lifetime, that march down Broadway. Only one who passed as we did through that tempest of cheers can know the terrible enthusiasm of that occasion".

But two years have passed, and the city which blossomed with flags and rang with enthusiasm in 1861 is soon to be lurid with fires lighted by the mob; those terrible days when the draft riots came; when the asylums for fatherless and motherless children were laid in ashes simply because these children had dark faces. Now, as the order comes from the Secretary of War to Governor ,Andrew, "Have the 54th report at once to General Hunter, S. C.," the wires also warn Colonel Shaw, "It will not be safe to take your regiment through New York".

To understand, with any degree of appreciation, the state of the country and the mission of this first black regiment, we must unroll for a brief period the record of the two preceding years. Except in enthusiasm, never was a nation so completely unpre­pared for the coming conflict as was the North in 1861. The handkerchiefs which waved an adieu to the New York Seventh were of daintiest lace, but soon from the humblest walks of life, and from farm and factory, came the men, who in those first days gave their lives so freely, in the mis­takes, and experiments, by which the free states learned the terrible art of war.  

In the perspective given by thirty-five years, it is appalling that the true purpose of the war should ever have been denied by the North; its purpose was never disavowed by the South. Just one month before the marching of the first regiments, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the New Con­federacy, had said in his great speech at Savannah, "At the time of the formation of the Constitution of the United States it was the general opinion that slavery would be evanescent and pass away. Our new government is founded upon exactly the oppo­site idea; its foundations are laid, its cor­ner stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, and that slavery is his natural condition". This was a straightforward declaration of Southern principles. Shall the attitude of the North be judged by Lincoln's first in­augural? He says, "I have no purpose di­rectly or indirectly to interfere with the in­stitution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so". Thus with an indifference to the nation's crime, which served as that crime's protec­tion, the great North began the war.

 

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