Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment And Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw Memorial

This photograph by Richard Benson, taken in 1973, shows the Shaw Memorial in its place of honor on the edge of Boston Common, facing the Massachusetts statehouse. It is a site past which the 54th Massachusetts marched in 1863 on its way to board a ship for combat in South Carolina. National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of Susan and Peter MacGill, ©Richard Benson, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York City.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Shaw Memorial, created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and dedicated in 1898 in Boston, is, in the opinion of many, America’s greatest public monument by its finest sculptor. 

The result of years of labor, meticulous attention to detail and the sculptor’s inspired composition, the statue can be seen in three locations: the bronze original at the foot of the Massachusetts State House on the perimeter of Boston Common; a bronze copy at Aspet, Saint-Gaudens’ home and studio in Cornish, N.H., maintained by the National Park Service, and the original, golden plaster at the National Gallery of Art. The latter is on long-term loan from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service and Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 54th’s shining hour, the Battle of Fort Wagner, the National Gallery has organized an exhibition examining all aspects of the acclaimed statue. “Tell it with Pride: the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial” will be on view through January 20. It is ably curated by Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the gallery’s department of photographs, and Nancy Anderson, curator and head of the gallery’s American and British paintings.

Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), the genius who sculpted the Shaw Memorial, was born in Ireland to a French father and Irish mother. After settling in New York with his family, he received early training as a cameo-cutter and studied at the Cooper Union School and National Academy of Design. Further training in Paris and Rome over the course of eight years, along with exposure to a diversity of European sculpture, honed Saint-Gaudens’ eye and skills. Returning to New York in 1875, he worked for Tiffany Studios and helped decorate H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston under the supervision of John La Farge.

The success of Saint-Gaudens’s first commission, the heroic statue of Civil War hero Admiral David Farragut in New York’s Madison Square Park in 1881, made him the “obvious choice for the sculpture” of the Shaw Memorial, writes National Gallery curator Deborah Chotner.

After accepting the Shaw commission in 1884 and while ideas for that assignment were germinating, Saint-Gaudens completed a succession of major public pieces honoring the likes of President Lincoln, Generals Sherman and Logan, the figure of Diana atop Madison Square Garden and the much-admired Adams Memorial in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery. He also created an impressive series of bas-reliefs of distinguished people, like Robert Louis Stevenson, worked on decorations for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and redesigned US coinage.

In 1885, Saint-Gaudens purchased a house and barn in what became the artists’ colony of Cornish, where he carried out important projects in spite of increasing ill health until his death in 1907. As Chotner summarizes, “No other American sculptor of the post-Civil War era…approached his success in creating the grand and moving public monuments to the nation’s heroes, as well as penetrating portraits of many figures of America’s Gilded Age.”

The subject of his finest work, the most famous African American unit in the Civil War, the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer infantry, was composed of African Americans from Massachusetts, 23 other states and Canada and the West Indies. Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, two of whose sons enlisted in the 54th, exhorted other African Americans to join the cause, proclaiming, “Men of Color, to Arms!”

In the face of widespread skepticism about the ability of blacks to fight, the staunchly abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, James A. Andrew, sought out white officers from prominent families with antislavery convictions, notably the commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Born in 1837 into a strongly abolitionist family, Shaw was a Harvard dropout with significant battle experience. He served in the defense of Washington in 1861 and, as an officer in the Second Massachusetts Infantry, was wounded at Antietam. By the time Andrew tapped him to lead the 54th, he had risen to the rank of colonel at the age of 25.

Shaw was a demanding leader whose soldiers came to respect and even admire their Boston Brahmin commander. Among other things, Shaw protested the injustice of paying his men less than white infantrymen; for 18 months they refused to accept anything less than full compensation before receiving full back pay.

In the spring of 1863, the 54th marched, with impressive precision, through the streets of Boston. After Shaw raised and kissed his sword in salute to his parents, sister and bride of less than a month, the unit proceeded to board a steamer in Boston Harbor headed for South Carolina.

After a skirmish in July in which the outnumbered 54th held its ground against Confederate troops, Shaw rallied his rain-spattered, muddy, exhausted troops for a march to Morris Island. There, the formidable earthworks of Fort Wagner, rising 30 feet above the beach and bristling with cannons, guarded access to the key port of Charleston. Following hours of Union bombardment, on July 18, 1863, Shaw asked to have the 54th lead the attack on the imposing fort — and a chance to prove their worthiness in battle.

Shaw, leading the charge, was cut down at the parapet, as were many of his men. A Currier & Ives print in the exhibition approximates the scene of the doomed attack, in which the African American troops never wavered and demonstrated great courage and determination. Sergeant William H. Carney, who held the flag aloft throughout the battle, in spite of severe wounds, became the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.

In all, Union casualties numbered more than 1,500, the Confederates around 150. Nearly half of the 600 men of the 54th who participated were killed, captured or later died of wounds. Shaw’s body was thrown into a mass grave with his soldiers; later, the family asked that he remain there with his men.

Thereafter, the bravery and fitness of black soldiers to serve the Union cause was widely recognized, abetting the recruitment of 180,000 blacks — amounting to ten percent of the Union army by the end of the war. African American troops were essential to the victory of the North.

Proposals for a Boston memorial to Shaw and the 54th languished for years until the early 1880s, when architect H.H. Richardson introduced Saint-Gaudens to the sponsoring committee. At their urging, the sculptor began planning for a modest bronze equestrian statue, which evolved into a much more complex composition in which Shaw was associated with his troops in a large bas-relief. That concept was apparently inspired by a painting Saint-Gaudens had seen in France, “Campagne de France,” 1814, by Jean-Louis Ernest Messonier, which depicted Napoleon on horseback with rows of infantry in the background.

To pay for what became to Saint-Gaudens a project of “extreme interest” and a “labor of love,” he carried out numerous lucrative commissions that he said “would reimburse me for the pleasure and time I was devoting” to the Shaw Memorial.

During the dozen years Saint-Gaudens labored on the project, he created around 40 heads of models of different ages and features, many of which were incorporated into the final bronze sculpture in his New York studio.

As curator Anderson observes, “The individuality …[Saint-Gaudens] achieved in the faces of the soldiers is one of the most compelling features of the memorial.” They range from a young drummer boy at the front, through bearded and clean-shaven comrades behind him. Their intense seriousness and resolve is palpable, underscoring their dedication to the cause of freedom and preserving the Union.

The painstaking, thorough process followed by Saint-Gaudens in creating the monument offers a text-book glimpse into how a sculpting genius produces a three-dimensional masterwork. The artist based the figure and face of Shaw on photographs, but he hired black models — none members of the 54th Massachusetts — to pose for the marching soldiers. The exhibition aims to bring the African American troops to life by identifying them and displaying their photographs.

“Our project,” says National Gallery director Earl A. Powell III, “seeks to make real these anonymous African American soldiers, giving them both names and faces, where possible, by showing vintage photographs.” Knowing their likely fate in battle adds to one’s admiration for these poignant likenesses.

There are also vintage photos of people who recruited them, like Douglass, Wendell Phillips and Sojourner Truth, and women who nursed, taught and guided them, notably Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman. Greenough stresses that all were savvy about using photographs to advance their careers and causes.

Also displayed are a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, a recruiting poster, a letter to Lincoln advocating equal pay for blacks, the Medal of Honor awarded to Carney and other documents relating to the 54th and the Battle of Fort Wagner. Viewed together, these objects reflect a critical event in the Civil War and the evolution of appreciation for the courage and skill of African American soldiers, highlighting the sacrifices and bravery of the 54th’s individual soldiers.

In the monument, the young colonel rides erect on his horse with sword drawn in the foreground, his troops alongside with rifles on their shoulders and striding purposefully forward. An allegorical figure of peace floats above, offering an ethereal presence in contrast to the earthly reality of the fighting men. Above Shaw’s head is the Latin inscription that translates to “He forsook all to preserve the public weal,” the motto of the Order of the Cincinnati, of which the colonel was a hereditary member. The architectural setting was designed by Charles F. McKim of McKim, Meade and White.

Dedicated on the edge of Boston Common facing the statehouse in an elaborate ceremony on May 31, 1897, the striking bronze memorial was eulogized by the likes of Professor William James of Harvard (who said the monument “strikes me as perfection”) and Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute. Since then, the statue has inspired poems, musical compositions and the 1989 movie Glory.

After an enthusiastic reception at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, the plaster version of the Shaw Memorial was purchased by what is now Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It was displayed until 1919 when, the victim of changing tastes, it was covered by a wall. In 1949, the Albright-Knox presented the sculpture to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Exposed to the elements for a half century, it was replaced by a bronze cast of the plaster, better suited to outdoor exposure. The plaster was deposited on long-term loan by the National Park Service at the National Gallery in 1997 and subsequently conserved and restored to its original golden glory.

Seamlessly combining a majestic equestrian statue and a multifigured narrative relief, the Shaw Memorial stands as a unique tribute uniting commander and troops. It is, says African art historian Richard J. Powell, an “impressive, altarlike homage to fallen heroes and higher allegiances.”

The exhibition travels to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, February 23–May 26. 

The densely illustrated, 209-page catalog, with a preface by Powell and insightful essays by Greenough, Anderson, Renee Ater and Lindsay Harris, is published by the National Gallery in association with Yale University Press. The National Gallery is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, www.nga.gov or 202-737-4215.

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