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Sunday, February 28, 2016

On the Shoulders of Giants

"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants."

—John of Salisbury

Two neighborhoods in my fair city, Washington, DC, take their names from giants we've all but forgotten.

Oliver Howard graduated from West Point in the 1850s and was sent to fight Seminoles. While encamped in the Everglades, he was "born again." His peers would forever after mock his piety.

An abolitionist, in 1861 Howard found himself leading Union troops at Bull Run. A year later, he lost his right arm at Seven Pines, but would return from the hospital three months later to fight at Second Bull Run and Antietam. In subsequent years, Howard led bluecoats into battle at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta and Savannah.

After the war, Howard was made commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He believed former slaves would most benefit from education, and in 1867 started Howard University in Washington.

Robert Shaw, the fair-haired son of a family of Boston abolitionists, dropped out of Harvard in 1859, uncertain how to spend his life. When the Confederate states seceded two years later, he enlisted in the Union army, soon reaching the rank of colonel.

While home convalescing from a wound received at Antietam, Shaw was tapped to organize the 54th Massachusetts, one of the North's first regiments of African American troops. Sent to South Carolina as manual labor, the regiment was soon chosen to spearhead an ill-fated assault on a Confederate fort outside Charleston.

In the attack, Shaw's exposed troops were shredded by artillery and musket fire, but their remnants managed to reach and scale the ramparts. During brutal hand-to-hand combat inside the fort, Shaw was killed.

The Confederate general in charge refused to return Shaw’s body to the Union army after the fight. To show his contempt for a white man who would lead black troops, the general tossed Shaw's body into a common burial trench. After the war, Shaw's family chose to leave their son's body there, his father remarking they couldn't wish for him better company.

While you wait in line for your latte, celebrate February 29, the bonus day of Black History Month, by Tweeting this post. Include the hashtag #ShouldersOfGiants.

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