The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial remains one of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens' most stirring and celebrated masterpieces and is considered by some to be America's greatest public monument. Saint-Gaudens expended 14 years of his life developing the work, longer than any other of his career. The original was completed in 1897 and was installed where it remains today, at Beacon and Park Streets in Boston, Massachusetts.
"This thing of Saint-Gaudens strikes me as real perfection."- Henry James, American writer
The origins of the Shaw Memorial began in 1863 soon after the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, during the American Civil War. At that time, men of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry proposed that a memorial to its commander - Colonel Robert Gould Shaw - be erected near where the colonel fell and was later interred in a mass grave along with hundreds of other members of his regiment after a failed assault on the fort. Shaw's father suggested that "The monument, though originated for my son, ought to bear, with his, the names of his brave officers and men, who fell and were buried with him." Because of local hostility, and the unstable ground, the memorial was never erected. The funds went instead to the first free school for African American children in Charleston, which was named for Shaw.
In 1865, an African American businessman, Joshua Benton Smith, initiated a new call for a memorial in Boston. Smith worked for the Shaw family when Robert was a child. He went on to establish a successful catering business and later served in the Massachusetts legislature. A committee was formed of 21 prominent Bostonians, including the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner. It was not until 1883 that Saint-Gaudens was given the sculpture's commission.
The concept of Shaw on horseback with marching soldiers was inspired, at least in part, by a painting Saint-Gaudens saw in France, Campagne de France, 1814, by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, which depicts Napoleon on horseback with rows of infantry in the background. Saint-Gaudens always strove for perfection regarding realism. In this relief he wanted to show a range in facial features and age, as found among the men of the regiment. This was the first time a monument depicted blacks realistically, and not as stereotypes. He hired African American men to pose and modeled about 40 different heads to use as studies. His concern for accuracy also extended to the clothing and accoutrements.
Saint-Gaudens worked slowly. "My own delay I excuse on the ground that a sculptor's work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power to execute a result that will not be a disgrace. There is something extraordinarily irritating, when it is not ludicrous, in a bad statue. It is plastered up before the world to stick and stick for centuries, while man and nations pass away. A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten, but the bronze remains to accuse or shame the populace and perpetuate one of our various idiocies."
On the memorial's background, Shaw's father suggested and Saint-Gaudens agreed to use the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization formed after the Revolutionary War, for officers and their descendants and of which Robert Gould Shaw was a hereditary member. The motto reads: "OMNIA RELINQVIT SERVARE REMPVBLICAM" ("He gave up everything to serve the republic"). Among other symbolic details are 34 stars along the top, representing the states of the Union in 1863. The 11 x 14 ft. bronze cast was completed in May 1897, at the Gorham Company foundry in Providence, R. I., at a cost of $7,000.
On May 31, 1897, the day of the unveiling, the weather was overcast with a light, misty rain. In spite of this, there was a festive feeling and spectators lined the streets. Two large American flags covered the sculpture. At 11:17 a.m., at a signal, two young nephews of Robert Gould Shaw, unveiled the memorial. The crowd cheered, a band struck up "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and an artillery battery on the Boston Common fired a 17-gun salute. Simultaneously, three warships in the harbor each fired a 21-gun salute.
The military units present began to march past the memorial, led by 65 veterans of the 54th Massachusetts. Some of the officers wore their Civil War uniforms but most of the enlisted men were in their best frock coats. Black veterans from the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry were also present. Among the men of the 54th, Sergeant William Carney carried the American flag. The sight of him elicited cheers from the onlookers who knew of his exploits. The 54th veterans laid a large wreath of lilies of the valley before the monument. All of this deeply moved Saint-Gaudens:
"Many of them were bent and crippled, many with white heads, some with bouquets... The impression of those old soldiers, passing the very spot where they left for the war so many years before, thrills me even as I write these words. They faced and saluted the relief, with the music playing 'John Brown's Body'.... They seemed as if returning from the war, the troops of bronze marching in the opposite direction, the direction in which they had left for the front, and the young men there represented now showing these veterans the vigor and hope of youth. It was a consecration."
Accolades came from around the country and beyond. Henry James wrote, "How I rejoice that something really fine is to stand there forever for R.G.S. and all the rest of them. This thing of Saint-Gaudens strikes me as real perfection." Artist Kenyon Cox, commented that "people say it's the best thing that Saint-Gaudens ever did."
Ninety years later the memorial inspired the film Glory which brought the history of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment to national prominence.