“One is almost able to catch the firm and regular beat of their iron heels on the stones of the street,” said activist Archibald Henry Grimké (1849-1930) gazing at the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907).
This memorial was distinct among public commemoration of the American Civil War. While centering the white commander of the war’s first federally-raised regiment of African American men, the piece of art also depicted soldiers marching to wage a war over slavery. It is the first well-known, American civic monument to include dignified representation of Black men. As it was unveiled along Boston Commons in 1897, racist violence and stereotypes continued to inflict harm on Black communities. In contrast, this monument depicts bravery, sacrifice, and the promise of equality. In 1997, this version was cast in bronze by the Saint-Gaudens Memorial and installed here as a testament to its groundbreaking public expression of dignity and resilience.
On May 28, 1863, members of the newly formed regiment paraded through the streets of Boston. Individuals from 24 states enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment after the federal government finally allowed African American men to join the fight earlier that year. They understood the personal risk of war, protested unequal pay, and objected to the absence of Black officers.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens depicted the group entering the war with an angel overhead. The ethereal figure holds poppies close to her body – a symbol of death and an omen of the sacrifice to come. Three months later, the group demonstrated bravery when the 600 members of the regiment led a bold assault on Confederate-held Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. 285 men were killed, missing, captured, or injured. Among the dead was the regiment’s commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863). In the aftermath of this bloodshed, the regiment had proven the value of Black men in combat to many skeptical Americans in power. Other African American men enlisted as the government formed new regiments. Their service contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy and its defense of white supremacy.
Even as the Civil War raged, Joshua B. Smith (1813-1879) proposed memorializing Col. Robert Gould Shaw in the commander’s home city of Boston. The African American business person and abolitionist was employed by the Shaw family before owning a catering company. After some promising starts, a committee of Bostonians awarded the sculptural commission to Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1883. Initially focused on the challenge of producing an equestrian figure, the parents of Col. Shaw called on the artist to also memorialize the men their son had led in battle. Saint-Gaudens heeded the request and a more complex memorial began to take shape.
The sculptor strove to create lifelike qualities and aesthetic balance. Saint-Gaudens modeled about 40 different heads after hiring African American men to pose. In this high relief composition, he featured a range of facial features, physical builds, and ages. His concern for detail and accuracy extended to clothing and accoutrements as well. Fourteen years passed before Saint-Gaudens completed the memorial to be installed in Boston Commons and even then, he continued his search for perfection. In 1997, this bronze was produced from a later plaster version in which the sculptor had made minor changes to the angel, horse, and flags. The original plaster is now on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The sculptor kept a low profile at the unveiling event in 1897 but was moved emotionally by the Civil War veterans participating in the ceremonies. “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...It was a consecration,” he recounted. The sculpture quickly became an unofficial memorial of African American military service, a site of veterans’ reunions for several decades, and an enduring symbol of the unfinished work towards equality.
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