The Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth Regiment Memorial, a monumental bronze relief sculpture standing at the edge of Boston Common, was begun twenty years after the end of the Civil War and not completed for another fourteen. It was an unusually complex project, but the sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, came to regard it as a labor of love. The memorial had been commissioned by a group of Bostonians to honor Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the privileged son of abolitionist parents, who had given his life fighting for the Union cause. Saint-Gaudens originally envisioned an equestrian statue— the traditional hero on horseback—but Shaw’s family objected to the format as pretentious. The revised design presents the officer riding beside a company of foot soldiers marching toward their destiny. When the monument was at last unveiled in 1897, the philosopher William James observed that it was the first American “soldier’s monument” dedicated to a group of citizens united in the interests of their country, rather than to a single military hero.
Robert Shaw commanded the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It was the first regiment of African Americans recruited in the North for service in the Union Army. Many of the volunteers had enlisted at the urging of the black orator Frederick Douglass, who believed (mistakenly, as it turned out) that former slaves and others of African descent would never be denied the full privileges of citizenship if they fought for those
rights alongside white Americans. But arming black soldiers in defense of the Republic proved to be controversial and the Fifty-Fourth bore the additional burden of having to prove its value.
In the summer of 1863, Shaw’s regiment led an audacious assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. That fortress on Morris Island guarded Charleston Harbor, the principal port
of the Confederacy, and was built on earthen parapets that rose thirty feet above the beach. It had only one land-facing side, which was bordered with a water-filled ditch ten feet wide. Shaw’s battalions were already weakened and exhausted when they approached Fort Wagner on July 18, after a grueling two-day march through driving rain. And as their commanding officer would have known, the attack was doomed before it began, for the Union troops were overwhelmingly outnumbered by Confederates. Nevertheless, Shaw rode into battle flourishing his sword and shouting “Forward, Fifty-fourth!” As he crested the ramparts, three enemy bullets shot him down. His body was later stripped and thrown with those of his troops into a mass grave.
In the end, 281 soldiers and officers from the unit were lost at Fort Wagner—killed or never accounted for—and countless others were injured. Despite that dramatic defeat, the
Massachusetts Fifty-fourth had successfully “established its reputation as a fighting regiment,” in the words of one of its surviving officers, Frederick Douglass’s son Lewis: “Not a man flinched.” Reports of their extraordinary courage rallied African Americans
to the cause, and Abraham Lincoln later surmised that the additional manpower they supplied had made the critical difference to the outcome of the war.
Saint-Gaudens symbolized this paradoxical military episode in which defeat gives rise to victory with the winged figure that hovers in low relief above the soldiers; she carries poppies, traditional emblems of death and remembrance, and an olive branch for victory and peace. Apart from that concession to allegory, Saint-Gaudens worked in a realistic style. If the portrait of Shaw appears idealized, his rigid posture and resolute gaze nonetheless accord with contemporary accounts of his brave demeanor as he entered battle like a sacrificial lamb. More remarkable is the stoic procession of soldiers, portrayed not as cogs in the machinery of war but as individuals participating in a moral crusade. In a time when African Americans were usually depicted as generic types, Saint-Gaudens searched out models and produced some forty portrait-heads in clay, even though
he used only sixteen in the sculpture itself. The ragged uniforms of the recruits are each disheveled in a different way—not to undermine the soldier’s gallantry, as some have argued, but to recall their long and dreary trudge to Charleston Harbor. “There they march,” said William James, “warm-blooded champions of a better day for man.”
In 1982, sixty-two names of African American soldiers who gave their lives at Fort Wagner were inscribed on the base of the Shaw Memorial.
January 17, 2012 PowerPoint Robert Shaw Memorial,
The movie “Glory” depicts this heroic story of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. I hope that you will have an opportunity to see it. Have a good Week! -Mrs. S
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” I Tim. 4:12 NIV