ON THE eve of the 100th anniversary of the attack on Fort Wagner, the poet Robert Lowell looked upon Boston’s famous monument to the soldiers who fought there with despair. In the Civil War battle on July 18, 1863, black members of Massachusetts’ 54th Regiment fought their first major engagement against a Confederate force. Though their assault on the fort failed, the soldiers’ enormous heroism has often been portrayed as a turning point in civil rights history, putting to rest prejudices about the bravery and ability of blacks. But for Lowell, writing in the era of Jim Crow, “the drained faces of Negro school children” on television seemed to make a mockery of the supposed triumph.
The progress since Lowell wrote “For the Union Dead” has been profound: Legal segregation is over, voting rights have been restored, a black man sits in the Oval Office. Still, the 150th anniversary of the battle, on Thursday, shouldn’t pass without some of the same introspection.