African Americans and the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial
In the summer of 2018, Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park initiated a Special History Study to examine the African American dimensions of the Col. Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment Memorial. The Col. Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment Memorial was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and unveiled in 1897 to honor the first federally-raised African American regiment from a northern state during the Civil War and its white commander.
In January 2022, the park released the publication, To Heal the Wounded Nation’s Life: African Americans and the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial by historian Kathryn Grover. Over three years, Grover examined African Americans’ involvement in the memorial’s creation, reactions to its completion, and feelings about this unique Civil War memorial over time. The extensive Special History Study spans from accounts of Black military service during the Revolutionary War to the memorial’s role in recent racial justice protests. Her research describes advocates for the memorial’s creation like Black businessperson, Joshua Bowen Smith, and demonstrates the pride, sacrifice, and inspiration Civil War veterans found in the sculpture.
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Praise for the Publication:
“The Shaw/54th Memorial is one of Saint-Gaudens’s most important works. This study provides new texture and insight into efforts in Boston and elsewhere to create a memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the solders of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and the monument’s reception by the African-American community. Kathryn Grover’s research has added greatly to our knowledge of this sculpture and its social and political context.”
-Rick Kendall, park superintendent
“It was such a gift to be able to read it and to be able to engage with this history…This is a story that is known and it is knowable, and it takes someone with determination and vision to be able to bring it to light.”
-Steven Locke, contemporary artist
Excerpt from Preface:
A great deal has been written about Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment, but this study endeavors to follow a particular African American path into the story that has not yet been heavily traveled. To try to plumb the meanings of service to one’s country—a concept understood in vastly differently ways among African Americans than among the ruling elites of the country who accepted, relied upon, and benefited from their service— this study begins with the formation of the 54th Regiment itself. Chapter One covers the efforts of African Americans in Massachusetts to be permitted to fight for their country and how, once they were authorized to do so, whites in power continually sought to shape and constrain their participation and the rewards accruing to them for it. The chapter also covers the 54th Regiment’s experience at Fort Wagner and its attitudes toward their colonel. Chapter Two deals with the legacy of Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th Regiment, and the assault on Fort Wagner as it was expressed in institutional and personal names, veterans’ reunions and anniversary events, and literature and art before the Shaw Memorial was unveiled. Chapter Three describes the efforts to develop a sculptural memorial to Shaw, the regiment, and African American Civil War troops up to 1897. Chapter Four deals specifically with the development of the Shaw Memorial from the time Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to create it in 1882, in particular with the inclusion of African American soldiers and the debate over the wording of inscriptions on the memorial.
Chapter Five describes the unveiling of the Shaw Memorial and its related ceremonies and focuses most closely on African American presence and activity at these events. It also places the unveiling in the context of 1890s Boston and the United States, why it was possible for even Booker T. Washington to speak of the memorial as both a site of honor and of unfulfilled promise. As the hopes of the postwar constitutional amendments and Reconstruction withered, veterans of the 54th and other African American regiments were among those who sought redress for discrimination and terrorism North and South. Chapter Six describes the continuing influence of Shaw and the 54th, both through and apart from the Shaw Memorial. It follows the men of the 54th and its comrade regiments (the 55th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the 5th Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry) as they gathered at the Shaw Memorial—their memorial—for reunions and anniversaries until their last members passed away in the early 1940s. Before that time but more decidedly afterward, the Shaw became a symbolic reference point and stage for any number of equal rights rallies, demonstrations, and protests involving race, gender, housing, and education; paradoxically, but perhaps because it expressed interracial unity, the memorial was also the site of antiwar protests. And because of its interracial character it attracted negative uses during Boston’s long struggle with busing and desegregating its public schools.
The study includes five appendixes that may be considered working documents, all of them compiled in the course of research. They are not comprehensive; instead, they provide a foundation for further biographical work and new research on poetic tributes. The first appendix features transcriptions of verse and song written by African Americans that in any number of ways invoke Shaw, the 54th Regiment, and the Shaw Memorial. The second includes transcriptions of poetry and song written by white Americans on the same subjects. In some few cases relevant excerpts of very long poems that deal only marginally with these subjects have been included. The final three appendixes are biographical and are formatted as I have organized biographical data for many years; a key details the abbreviations I have used. Appendix C offers background on those African Americans members of the 54th, 55th, and 5th Cavalry regiments and the Navy who are known to have taken part in the Shaw Memorial unveiling or who were alive in 1897 and lived close enough to Boston to have taken part. This compendium emerged from frustration at not finding anywhere the names of the sixty-five members of the 54th who were part of the unveiling procession’s “battalion of survivors.” This omission from the historical record may never be fully rectified, but this compilation offers a start, at least, for gathering information about many people who seem almost to have failed to reach its notice. Appendix D presents biographical background on Joshua Bowen Smith, while the final appendix offers background on the key players in the creation and use of the Shaw Memorial.
About the Author:
Kathryn Grover is an independent researcher, writer and editor. She is also the author of Make a Way Somehow: African-American Life in a Northern Community (1994) and The Fugitive's Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (2009). Along with Janine da Silva, Grover researched and wrote a historic resource study of significant sites on the historically Black north slope of Beacon Hill in 2002 for Boston African-American National Historic Site. She researched and wrote a context statement about fugitives and fugitive assistance in Massachusetts with the architectural historian Neal Larson for the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Grover also worked on Nantucket under a James Bradford Ames Fellowship on the role of whaling and kinship among Black whalers on the island and the mainland. She has prepared numerous National Register of Historic Place nominations of African-American and Underground Railroad properties.