In For the Union Dead, the speaker looks at a relief of an officer and his soldiers from the Civil War. The relief is now overshadowed by construction, and it seems on the verge of collapse. Starting from that image, the speaker dives into ruminations about war and the progress of society.
He considers the life of the officer in the relief, Colonel Shaw. To the narrator, he comes alive, but to the city of Boston, the relief is fading in significance. The narrator connects this to the Civil Rights Movement and to World War II. The narrator then returns to the streets of Boston, where he watches cars pass.