Twenty Rutland-area African-American Civil War veterans will be honored through a new downtown Rutland sculpture commissioned by Rutland Regional Medical Center.
The sculpture, part of a series planned by the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center, MKF Properties, Vermont Quarries, and Green Mountain Power’s Rutland Blooms, will highlight the heroism and sacrifice of soldiers who served in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African-American regiment formed in the North after the Emancipation Proclamation opened the military to blacks.
“The telling of Vermont history would be incomplete without the telling of contributions of persons of African heritage in the state,” said Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity and creator of the Vermont African American Heritage Trail. “From the early settlers of the 1600s through contemporary times, persons of African heritage have shaped outcomes within our borders and on the national stage, as was the case for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The completion of the sculpture will serve the dual purpose of educating Vermonters to a little-known piece of history and, equally important, place Rutland on the map as a destination for cultural tourism.”
The volunteer contingent—farmers, laborers, teamsters and one former slave, George Hart of Woodstock—were joined by other African Americans from across the Northeast and southern Canada in the 54th Regiment. The 54th participated in the siege of Charleston, S.C., where the war had begun, and fought in Florida and throughout much of South Carolina. In 1865, the 54th fought in multiple skirmishes in George town, S.C., and surrounding regions, and was responsible for the destruction of 26 Confederate locomotives, 79 railcars and their contents, bridges and a machine shop valued at $1 million. The 54th Regiment also captured dozens of horses, carriages and related military equipment over the course of several months.
“This Rutland history needs to be told,” Rutland Regional President Tom Huebner said. “Until recently, I had never heard of the 54th Regiment or the African-American Rutlanders who fought in the Civil War. As soon as I did, I wanted to ensure this history is known for generations. These men, who broke down barriers and were national heroes, were largely volunteers in an Army with leaders who didn’t want them.”
In fact, the 54th Regiment was credited with debunking military beliefs that African Americans were unsuitable for service. After the regiment’s first combat, a bloody fight at Fort Wagner in Charleston, President Lincoln scolded generals who opposed the inclusion of African Americans in the Union Army.
“When victory is won, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue and clenched teeth, and steady eye and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation,” said President Lincoln. “I fear, however, that there will also be some white ones, unable to forget that with malignant heart and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.”
CSSC Executive Director Carol Driscoll selected local artist Don Ramey to carve the 54th Regiment sculpture, a roughly 5-foot-by-10-foot relief that will feature scenes from the regiment’s service. “Don is a talented local artist and instructor who has completed projects across the United States, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Rutland,” Driscoll said. “He will bring this extraordinary story to life.”
“The 54th Regiment, now known from the movie ‘Glory’ for their horrific sacrifice at Fort Wagner, was actually more loved by the other soldiers they fought with for their steadfast courage in covering numerous retreats, especially at the Battle of Olustee, where they saved hundreds of wounded soldiers from death or capture,” Ramey said. “They also stood up stubbornly to the U.S. Army and Congress, serving unpaid until they finally won the equal pay they had been promised.”
The 54th Regiment sculpture is the fourth in the series, which includes “The Jungle Book” by Barre artist Sean Hunter Williams underwritten by Phoenix Books, and “Stone Legacy,” a tribute to the region’s stone industry, funded by Green Mountain Power and MKF Properties. “The Jungle Book,” honoring Rudyard Kipling’s writing of the story in southern Vermont, was installed last fall on Center Street. “Stone Legacy,” completed by a team led by Steve Shaheen, will be installed in the new Center Street Marketplace this spring. A piece commissioned by the Costello family honoring Revolutionary War hero Ann Story and her son, Solomon, designed by Amanda Sisk, will be carved by Evan Morse this summer.
Others possible subjects in the sculpture series include Rutland residents and Civil War figures Edward and William Ripley, Rutland’s John Deere, Norman Rockwell, Ethan Allen, skier Andrea Mead Lawrence, and Martin Henry Freeman, a Rutland native who became the nation’s first African-American college president in 1856. The sculptures will be carved from “Danby White” marble from Vermont Quarries.
The project was born after GMP Vice President Steve Costello, who founded Rutland Blooms, saw a South Dakota public art project that includes bronze sculptures of all U.S. presidents. The project inspired the idea of a series of sculptures highlighting local and regional history, carved from local marble. The goal is to commission and install at least 10 sculptures by 2022.
“Rutland has some incredible history, and through this partnership, we hope to commemorate much of that history, honor people from our past, instill pride in the community, and provide visitors an engaging opportunity to connect with the community,” Costello said.
Sculpture drawing from artist Don Ramey