Henry Monroe was a 13-year-old drummer boy when the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment 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 years after that bloodshed, 91-year-old Winifred Monroe, Henry’s only living granddaughter, heard his words ring forth Thursday at the State House, where descendants of the 54th and state officials commemorated the regiment’s valor and showed the world the heroism of black soldiers.
“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 bronze monument on Beacon Hill to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment by sculptor 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,” she 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 base of the memorial.
“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 Massachusetts Regiment in 1863.
“Bringing 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, the story of which 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 that his soldiers receive equal pay; black soldiers received $7 a month, while their white counterparts received $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 Llloyd Garrison and John J. Smith.
Edith Garrison-Griffin, 65, of Groton, said Garrison had let his son George Thompson fight in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, a second regisment 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 such as Thursday’s refocus energy on modern inequalities.
“Racism is still alive and well,” she said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Have we gotten anywhere?’ ”
Dozens of Civil War reenactors in South Carolina also commemorated the anniversary Thursday, 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 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,” she said.
Roxbury resident George Brown marched before the State House crowd with officers in the color guard of the reactivated 54th Regiment Thursday 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.”