Character and Strength of Heart: “I Have No Fear”

Supposedly, when one starts talking about the weather, there must not be much else to talk about.  However, it’s been so extremely extreme this year that I don’t quite know how to avoid it.  So far this summer, I’m batting .500—in the last ten posts, I’ve mentioned the weather five times.  It’s not as good as I’d hoped, nor as bad as I feared, but it is enough to make one positively long for autumn.

However, there’s still plenty of summer left, and some exciting indoor programs happening in the coming weeks.  One of those is the Sumter County Museum’s welcoming of Joseph McGill to McKenzie Hall at the Heritage Education Center on August 23.  McGill will discuss the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, in the first person and in uniform. 

The 54th has earned a distinguished place in Civil War history through its charge at Fort Wagner, near Charleston, SC, on July 18, 1863—most dramatically depicted in the 1989 film Glory.  The film starred Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington (who won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Private Trip), and also introduced audiences to acclaimed television actor Andre Braugher in his first-ever role as Thomas Searles, the bespectacled, intellectual soldier.  Although more than twenty years old, it’s still worth seeing, if only for the pivotal and spine-tingling (if not historically accurate) scene in which Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Robert Gould Shaw asks his men, “If [the flag-bearer] should fall, who will lift the flag and carry on?” and the heretofore timid Corporal Searles steps forward and says, “I will, sir.”

Although the regiment did in fact suffer the heavy casualties depicted in the film, losing nearly one-half their men, that was far from the end of their story.  They also participated in Potter’s Raid, the last campaign of the Civil War, which occurred in Sumter County in April 1865.

McGill, a Kingstree native, presently serves as Program Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  He is the founder of Company “I” 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment, a reenactment group based in Charleston.  McGill has been a park ranger at Fort Sumter National Monument, responsible for organizing events and conducting living history presentations.  He is a member of the SC African-American Heritage Commission, a board member for the proposed International African-American Museum, a founding member of the SC African-American History Alliance and on the Humanities Council SC’s Speakers Bureau.  His accomplishments also include directorships at the African-American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa, and at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, SC.  He is an active participant in Civil War reenactments, parades, living history presentations, and lectures.  His work has been featured on NPR.  Dr. Millicent Brown, associate professor of history and sociology at Claflin College, has stated that through his work, McGill “has gained a unique perspective on the lives of slaves before, during and after the Civil War.”

This uniquely inspiring event is made possible in part by the Humanities Council SC , a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities; inspiring, engaging and enriching South Carolinians with programs on literature, history, culture and heritage.

The program will be held Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 122 North Washington Street (parking is accessible from Church Street), and begins at 7 p.m.  There is no admission charge, and refreshments will be served.  For more info, please contact the Sumter County Museum at (803) 775-0908 or visit online at http://www.sumtercountymuseum.org./

Fort Wagner, which guarded the southern approach to Charleston Harbor, has long since eroded.  The remains of the battle veterans were washed out to sea, casualties of more than a century of hurricanes.  But the dedication of individuals like Joseph McGill ensures that South Carolina’s history remains alive.

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