National Gallery brings Civil War story to life


Actors portray soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment in the play “Forward, 54th!” at the National Gallery of Art. (Nathalie Ryan)
November 11, 2013

You’ve probably heard about some pretty important Civil War battles, such the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.

But there’s another important battle that you may not know: the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina (1863). It wasn’t an important battle because there was a big speech about it or because it changed the course of the Civil War, which was fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865. It was important because it was the first time that a group of African American men from the North, called the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment, were allowed to fight in a big Civil War battle. That happened because on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The document, which declared that slaves in Southern states were freed, also allowed black men to serve in the Union’s military.

Bringing history to life

This weekend, the National Gallery of Art will host a 30-minute play called “Forward, 54th!” which features a musician and five local actors telling the story of the 54th Regiment.

“It’s important to get inside the shoes of people who change the course of history and not just the presidents and the historical figures that we all know about, but rather to understand the courage and sacrifice and heroism of those thousands of African Americans who stepped up to participate in the Civil War in order to change history,” said Mary Hall Surface, who wrote the play. She read about 50 books on the topic, and wrote it in less than a year.

The story is told through the eyes of the regiment’s youngest soldier, 16-year-old drummer boy Alexander Johnson. Through the rhythms of their beats, drummer boys in the Civil War communicated the officers’ commands to the troops. Different drum rolls meant the troops were supposed to react in different ways. But Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led the 54th Regiment, told Johnson to “fall back,” or retreat, as the rest of the regiment fought on at Fort Wagner.

In the play, the drummer boy looks back at all that has happened. He recalls joining the regiment in Massachusetts months before the battle and then the regiment’s upbeat march through Boston before traveling about 1,000 miles to Fort Wagner.

History in art

The play goes along with an exhibit at the gallery that features photos of some of the men from the 54th Regiment. But the biggest and most inspiring part of the exhibit is a plaster sculpture that fills one wall and that features Shaw accompanying his troops to battle with the drummer boy leading the way. The sculpture was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and is a version of a bronze sculpture that can be seen in Boston.

“So much of what inspired the play was the lines and rhythms of the sculpture,” Surface said.

The 54th Regiment lost the Battle of Fort Wagner, and nearly 300 men were killed, wounded, captured or considered missing. Shaw was among them. But the battle would go down in history as a symbol of African Americans’ heroism and their dedication to the country.

If you go

What: See “Forward, 54th!”and then stop by the exhibit called “Tell It With Pride,” about the regiment, right next to the performance.

Where: The National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and Seventh Street NW. The play is in the gallery’s East Garden Court in the West Building.

When: Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.; Sunday at noon and 1:30 p.m.; and December 7 at 1:30 pm and 3 p.m.

How much? Free; no tickets required. For age 8 and older.

Information: www.nga.com.

Moira E. McLaughlin

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