"For the Union Dead," largely about the all-black 54th infantry of the Civil War, takes place about one hundred years after slavery. This ain't no history poem, though. The subject of slavery isn't just about the (then) recently emancipated Union soldiers Lowell dedicates this poem to, but the continued attitude of slavery from that point until the present day (1960s). The poem notes the presence of servility, as well as oppression in the air of what should be liberal Boston, Massachusetts. "What gives?" Lowell seems to be asking. How has there been so little change after such a huge sacrifice (of life and effort)? And, more importantly, why doesn't anyone notice?
Progress report? F plus. Lowell uses the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial as an opportunity to address how little progress we've made as a country in civil rights.
Think slavery's done with? Think again, bucko. This poem points out how the effects of slavery continue to corrupt society, long after the legal practice of slavery's been struck down.