Great America

The Ramparts of 2020

“When free men shall stand, between their loved homes and the war’s desolation…” We’re all behind the same ramparts now.

The soldier in gray was 16.

Cornelius Long crouched behind the ramparts of Battery Wagner in Charleston Harbor, that dark night. He and his comrades of a Georgia infantry regiment from Savannah had been cross-trained with artillery to assist in coastal defense; then they’d been moved around and eventually hustled out to Battery Wagner on Morris Island in the dark of night. The position was being reinforced covertly. Decoded enemy messages indicated it was about to be attacked, and the reinforced position was more than ready.

Was the 16-year-old boy?

No record remains to tell us. There is no eloquent letter, no semi-literate scrawl, not even a terse mention in a comrade’s diary or officer’s report. We do know he enlisted months later than his four brothers did and that, unlike them, he enlisted far from home. Perhaps the boy had quarreled with his parents over joining his older brothers, and that had caused the delay; perhaps he’d run away, to enlist. We can plausibly say that he’d been raised on hero tales of the American Revolution. The one surviving piece of his father’s artistic pottery has wreathed figures of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson on it. Two of his older brothers were named Francis Marion and James Madison, and his middle name “Armstrong” likely referenced that Revolutionary general. Family patriotism was strong.

His first name, Cornelius, was a Roman reference. Since slaves often had classical names bestowed on them as well, it is likely that another Cornelius, a former slave, crouched among one of the black Union regiments preparing for the attack that night.

Those men expected an easy time of it. “We expect to bayonet the rebels in their beds,” one wrote. (A military rule of thumb: never believe the high command’s reassurance that you have the element of surprise or that the enemy is weak).

It was a complex war, but perhaps it was simpler for young men like Cornelius, defending home territory—and the segregated Union regiments, who did not have a conflicted or nuanced view, about slavery. A great American tragedy, that men fighting for freedom should be pitted against men (and boys) standing “between their loved homes, and the war’s desolation.”

The battle, when it came, was brutal. The courage of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, portrayed in the film “Glory,” was all the more impressive because it was demonstrated in the dark and in the shock of meeting unexpectedly strong, in fact invincible, resistance.

What horrors did the boy experience that night? Fighting that was point-blank and personal—or did his vision close in to the immediate task of serving a gun, like an automaton? This was his first genuine action. In the parlance of the time, he was “seeing the elephant.” It did not closely resemble the stories of valor he’d grown up hearing. He joined the fraternity of genuine combat veterans, with his four older brothers. (Two of them had been killed the previous week at Funkstown, Maryland. It’s unlikely he knew that at the time, though.)

In the aftermath of the fight, was his strong young back employed in digging the mass grave into which Union Colonel Robert Shaw was hurled with his men? It seems not unlikely. The young, strong, and low-ranking tend to get those tasks.

He’d survived. Shaw had not.

Less than a fortnight later, Cornelius Long was killed by a random shell in a desultory bombardment.

Only one of the brothers returned alive from the war. William Long, my grandfather’s grandfather, would name one of his own sons “Cornelius,” but the name subsequently fell out of family use.

Still, a visible remembrance remains of Cornelius and his lost generation, in the “Defenders of Charleston” monument. Like Cornelius’ name, it’s classically inspired. A youthful warrior stands defiantly, with his sword broken but shield intact, between a woman and the sea.

Another monument stands on Boston Common, to the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, free black soldiers who fought in the vanguard of the doomed assault on Battery Wagner. William James praised the sculpture there at its unveiling: “There on foot go the dark out-casts, so true to nature that one can almost hear them breathing as they march.”

I have met descendents of the 54th who work to preserve the memory of those brave soldiers, and felt a kinship based on more than mere common ancestry. A reverence for the memories of brave men, and the desire to emulate their virtues in our own lives, is a uniting factor.

Now we have an additional uniting factor. Their Boston monument, as well as Cornelius Long’s, has been desecrated by the cowardly vandals of 2020’s blindly malicious insurrection.

“ . . . when free men shall stand, between their loved homes and the war’s desolation . . .”

We’re all behind the same ramparts, now.