by Kirk Savage
From Hope & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, (edited by Blatt, Brown, and Yacovene)
On Memorial Day in 1897, when ceremonies to honor Civil War veterans were taking place at war memorials across the country, a new monument was unveiled on Boston Common, a monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the regiment he commanded, the Fifty fourth Massachusetts infantry. The orator of the day, Harvard philosopher William James, compared the new monument with the more typical Civil War memorials already ubiquitous in the Northeast and elsewhere in the United States the equestrian monuments to great generals, on the one hand, and the common soldier monuments, with their generic figures of the ordinary foot soldier, on the other hand. The monument to Shaw and his regiment, James declared, was different. Shaw was not a general, and the men he commanded were not ordinary soldiers but African Americans mustered into the most important regiment of black soldiers raised in the North; Shaw and many of his troops had died together in the assault on Battery Wagner, one of the earliest large scale engagements of African American troops in the Civil War. And so this was no ordinary monument to military valor. The soldiers in this monument, James argued, represented "the profounder meaning of the Union cause." These soldiers had fought not just for a flag but for a moral cause that transcended mere territorial loyalties; they had fought to free the nation of what James called the "social plague" of slavery. (1)
The monument James praised was indeed unique. It was the first monument in the nation to show African American soldiers in full uniform, and it was a uniquely artful solution to the whole problem of the war memorial in effect synthesizing the great officer monument and the common soldier monument into one startlingly new depiction of a cohesive military unit. This is why the name "Shaw Memorial" is so inadequate: the monument is much more than a tribute to one individual.
Two aspects distinguish the monument most dramatically from the run of the mill Civil War memorial: its interracial subject and its unique artistry. I address these two issues race and art from the perspective of the late twentieth century, since that is a perspective we cannot avoid. At least one scholar has argued from this perspective that the monument is a racist work. (2)
How do we put such a conclusion to the test? How do we go about interpreting an extraordinary and carefully designed monument that takes on racial issues avoided or hidden in standard war memorials? Our challenge, one hundred years after the monument's erection, is to use both historical knowledge and the evidence of our eyes as we actually look at the monument's design to help shape or control our interpretation of its content. I navigate one possible route through this methodological and political thicket, in the hopes that readers will test the argument themselves, debate it, and form their own conclusions.
There are as many possible interpretations of a work of art as there are individuals to interpret it. This is a truism of "reception theory," which argues that the meaning of a text (or a design) is actually completed not by the author or artist but by the reader (or the viewer). Even if we accept this truism, however, there is no need to surrender entirely to the relativist conclusion that anything goes. Not every interpretation is equally valid: some are more informed or more perceptive than others, and some take better account of the visual evidence in plain view and the documentary evidence buried in archives.
Let us start, then, by looking at the visual evidence specifically, the huge bronze relief designed by the sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens for the monument to Shaw and the Fifty fourth Massachusetts Regiment. The panel is set in a sophisticated architectural frame, originally conceived by the architect Henry Hobson Richardson and then redesigned by Charles McKim; on the back side of the frame is a series of lengthy inscriptions. But it is above all Saint Gaudens's sculpture that defines the monument's content, not simply because it is so compelling but also because in the nineteenth century that was how monuments were generally understood: as sculptural images of heroes. The design, as already emphasized, is unique. It represents an infantry march with Shaw, the commanding officer, on horseback and his soldiers on foot, the whole scene displayed in profile and contained within one panel. Shaw is of course the leading figure in the composition, because he is front and center and in the highest relief; but he does not literally lead the march. Shaw rides beside his troops as they all move together toward their destiny in one narrative image.
The foot soldiers obviously represent a well drilled and disciplined unit, clad in uniform, marching in step, their faces all directed straight ahead. But as one looks more closely at the panel, the amazing diversity of the individual soldiers becomes apparent. They defy military standardization, on the one hand, and racial caricature, on the other. Their blackness is not a leveling trait, in other words, but a field in which the sculptor chose to create a rich interplay of internal differences. Thus, if we examine the work from right to left, we see the drummer boy juxtaposed with the sergeant behind him, the youngest member of the group with the oldest, smooth skin with beard, short stature with height; but if we read into depth, other more subtle contrasts emerge too: of facial hair and of cheekbone, nose, and eye shape. The procedure the sculptor used for faces is essentially the same one he applied to every detail of the body and its uniform and equipment. Hat brims are flipped and twisted to create variations of pitch and curvature; guns are tilted at slightly different angles so that they cross or spread; blankets are rolled in various shapes and set on the pack in different ways. in this fashion the overall impression of uniformity of identically clad soldiers marching perfectly in step, rhyming each other's body movements is changed and enriched by a kind of contrapuntal assertion of diversity.
The soldiers fill the width of the panel, but they do not entirely control it. There are really two rhythms in this march, masterfully interwoven: the steady tread of the foot soldiers carrying their gear, and the light but powerful step of the horse bearing Shaw. The soldiers lean their whole bodies slightly into the march, counterbalanced by the pack straps, which pull against their shoulders. We are made to feel the weight they carry, and how they manage their burden in a series of controlled, disciplined movements; as they step forward, their trousers rise and fall in rumpled folds on heavily creased shoes. The horse, by contrast, fairly glides, its tail and raised leg moving in a perfectly timed pattern of opposing arcs. The animal naturally towers over the troops and moves with ease. The only strain betrayed by its sleek surface of vein and muscle is the pressure on its neck created by Shaw's taut reins, which check the horse's strength and keep it from outpacing the men beneath. Shaw thereby rides absolutely motionless, propelled not by his own body but by the superior energy of the steed. While everyone else angles forward, he remains fixed upright, ramrod straight, in the saddle. This creates perhaps the most startling effect of the whole panel: Shaw becomes a still center in the midst of an otherwise moving tableau. He is swept along, we know, by its collective movement, and yet abstracted from it.
Now at this point I should stop and admit that what began as a "description" of the work has already become highly interpretive and thus is open to debate. The scholar Albert Boime, for example, also has noted the difference between the erect bearing of Shaw and the forward angle of the foot soldiers, but he argues instead that the soldiers arc "listless and somewhat rumpled looking." I disagree: the reason the soldiers do not spring forward with backs perfectly erect is that they are marching, conserving their strength as they carry themselves and their equipment in a measured tread. When viewed within the context of the narrative, they come across to me as disciplined, not listless. Boime's notion that the troops are "listless" is a crucial step in a larger argument that he makes, the conclusion being that the relationship between Shaw and the troops is a racist hierarchy. In this view the African American soldiers in the relief function merely as a foil by which to measure the superiority of the white hero above. Boime needs to persuade us, however, that the representation of Shaw and the representation of the troops are diametrically opposed to each other: he is up above, they are down below; he is erect, they are listless. Ultimately, Boime argues that in this comparison the troops lose their very humanity; he claims that the black men and the horse merge into one mass of subhumanity. He points our attention particularly to the visual rhyme between the horse's hind leg and the soldiers' retreating legs in back. (3)
Here again my analysis of the visual evidence differs considerably. Boime overlooks the many ways in which the horse and the troops remain visually distinct, in their movements, in their surface quality. And even more importantly, he does not see that this particular visual rhyme is one of a whole pattern of such rhymes meant to knit together all the various planes of the relief, including Shaw's. The diagonal of the sword, for example, so prominent at the front of the relief, rhymes the horse's leg below and the rifle barrels above, thereby helping to unite foreground and background commander, horse, and troops in one harmony.
Despite these unifying devices, it is still obvious that Shaw does indeed have a superior status in this relief, the status of a commanding officer. So although the sword helps to link Shaw with the rest of the march, it is also a mark of his distinction. The sword was a deliberately antiquated weapon chosen to embellish the officer's regalia precisely because it signaled the officer's removal from the actual business of killing, which the troops instead were trained to undertake. The detail of the sword reinforces what the interwoven rhythms of the whole have already established: Shaw at once belongs to the march and transcends it. He rides with his troops but is elevated above them, his head reaching up into the realm of the angel who floats over the men and guides their march. For Saint Gaudens, the figure of the angel was crucial; he stood by it despite the opposition of committee members and even friends. (4) It enabled Shaw to become a mediating figure between the register of the real below the concrete realm of the male body under physical strain and the register of the ideal above signified by the weightless female body divinely propelled. Shaw thus passes between the realms of mortality and immortality, between oblivion and eternity. Whereas he moves ahead with his troops toward an inevitable death, he alone is singled out for everlasting fame.
This distinction between the commander and his troops in the relief panel has a racial and racist dimension because black soldiers in this war, with few exceptions, were not allowed to be commanders; the whole idea of command or leadership was impregnated with assumptions of white privilege. Yet, what is so extraordinary about Saint-Gaudens's panel is that it maintains this distinction in status without reducing the soldiers to a mere foil. If we compare the panel to Thomas Ball's so called Emancipation Group (1879), also located in Boston, the point becomes clearer. Ball took a familiar image of enslavement, that of the kneeling, seminude black man, and contrasted it point by point with the heroic figure of Lincoln up above. The black man is defined not as a person in his own right, but as a lack of those attributes of personhood that Lincoln has in abundance: verticality, clothing, paper, and book, hence independence, power, and civilization. (5)
In Saint-Gaudens's panel, by contrast, the soldiers have their own signs of social legitimacy and power uniforms, guns, disciplined action, determination. And they have a compelling presence and individuality that African Americans had never before had in public sculpture, that common soldiers, black or white, had never had in the generic monuments erected to honor them. If one took the panel and simply changed the faces from African American to Anglo American, it would still be a groundbreaking tribute to the common soldier. Indeed, if the soldiers' bodies were identified as "white," it would probably not occur to anyone to read them negatively, in opposition to the figure of the commanding officer.
The "blackness" of the soldiers' bodies serves as a kind of container into which viewers can pour their own anger or prejudices, sometimes in a way that actually flouts the visual evidence in front of them. For example, in 1913, the critic Charles Caffin contrasted what he called the "doglike trustfulness" of the troops with "the serene elevation of their white leader." (6) This interpretation moves from visual evidence into the realm of pure fantasy. I have a hard time imagining how doglike trustfulness could ever be depicted in a sculpture of anything other than a dog; much less do I see it in these faces. Boime actually uses this quotation from Caffin as more ammunition against the monument, but it is misguided to give such an absurd description any critical weight. Caffin's observation is simply a racist misreading that tells us more about the critic than about the monument.
Having spent some time considering the visual evidence, we need to ask whether it is possible to find any documentary evidence that can supplement or amplify what the object itself tells us. The most obvious step is to consider the artist himself, to try to discover what he thought about the work he made. Although this seems eminently reasonable, in practice it is full of pitfalls. If there was ever a good example of Picasso's dictum "Don't talk to the driver," Saint Gaudens is it. He did not talk much about his work, publicly at least, but he did leave behind a memoir containing several anecdotes about his work on the Shaw Memorial, especially about the black men who modeled for him. These anecdotes are essentially a series of racist slurs and jokes made at the expense of the men who became the models for the soldiers we see on the relief. In his recounting, the sculptor lumps together the horse and the African American men and writes that "all furnished me with the greatest amusement." The horse was amusing to ride, and the "darkeys" were amusing for their ignorance, superstition, and deceit, though Saint Gaudens was careful to remark that "they are very likable, with their soft voices and imaginative, though simple, minds. (7)
Now if one already sees the relief as a racist hierarchy, it is easy to understand how Saint Gaudens's racist stories offer more support for the case. But we need not accept this equation of the artist's mental attitude with his work. There is a clear difference between Saint Gaudens's representations of the models in print and his representations of them in bronze. In the memoir he stereotypes the men, and the humor is supposed to work precisely because the (white) readers are expected to recognize and accept the stereotypes. In the relief panel, by contrast, the artist was not interested in creating any generic types, negative or positive. In fact, Saint Gaudens was interested in the African American soldiers precisely because they broke the generic mold of the white soldier repeated countlessly in other soldier monuments. Saint Gaudens resisted that kind of standardization in his art; his own artistic philosophy compelled him to individualize the soldiers rather than stereotype or caricature them as he did in the memoir.
I do not mean to overlook Saint Gaudens's racism, but rather to argue that an unpredictable process of artistic problem solving and labor came between the artist's preconceptions and his final product. His artistic discipline took him in a new and unexpected direction. As a social being, he was thoughtless, mimicking the racist beliefs of his milieu; as an artist, he was extraordinarily thoughtful, compelled to search out the humanity even of people he would ridicule in his gentlemen's club. (8)
This is not to say that the notion of artistic intention is worthless, or that we should not talk about it at all. But the notion of artistic intention should not be reduced to what the artist happened to say or be thinking about at a particular time. intention must be broadened to encompass at the very least the artist's training, how the artist conceptualized the artistic task, and the process by which the artist revised the work under internal pressures as well as pressures from outside. (9) If we look at all these intentional factors in Saint Gaudens's case, they help explain the paradox of how a racist white man could produce the first and most compelling images of African American soldiers in American sculpture.
To help us, we have a large, though by no means complete, archival record that documents the long and tortuous process by which the final design for the monument emerged. I have described this process in detail elsewhere, so here I concentrate on a few points salient to the issue of intention. The first point to stress is that when the campaign for a monument began in Boston in 1865, the sponsors conceived of the work not as a monument to the black regiment but to the white hero Shaw, who had become (after John Brown) the most famous martyr of the abolitionist cause. Interestingly, the prime mover behind the project at its inception was an African American businessman in Boston, Joshua B. Smith; after pledging a good deal of his own money and raising funds in the local African American community, he enlisted the aid of the famed abolitionist senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner. Both Smith and Sumner were adamant that the monument should be an equestrian statue of Shaw, and they managed to beat back the objections of those who felt that such a traditional image of military glory was inappropriate for an abolitionist hero. (10)
It was not until the early 1880s, after a long period in which the project lay dormant, that this conception of the monument began to shift. By this time Smith and Sumner had both died, but the monument fund had grown to the point where a project was now feasible. The architect Henry Hobson Richardson began work on a design, and he brought in Saint Gaudens to collaborate on the sculpture; Saint Gaudens, by his own admission, also wanted to do a traditional equestrian statue. In April 1882, the monument committee now in the hands of a group of Boston Brahmins announced a design. Not surprisingly, it featured an equestrian statue of Shaw (set in an arch), but also three relief tablets below the statue illustrating the history of the black regiment its departure, the battle at Battery Wagner, and the return of the survivors. A sketch from Richardson's office shows a very similar plan, with two instead of three relief tablets. Shaw remained the leading figure in this design, of course, but the commemorative intention had expanded to encompass the narrative history of the regiment extending even after Shaw's death and raising the issue of the black soldier and his civic status. (11)
This design was soon abandoned. According to Saint Gaudens, the Shaw family objected to the plans for an equestrian statue, believing that Shaw had not attained sufficient military rank to merit such a representation; it would appear "pretentious." (12) Saint Gaudens then rethought the problem and devised a solution that would integrate into one image the two separate elements of the 1882 design. The sculptor hit upon the idea of representing an infantry march with Shaw on horseback and his soldiers on foot, the whole scene in one large relief panel. In this way the commemorative content shifted further, as Shaw and the troops now melded into one sculptural statement.
It is ironic that the traditional white hero monument contemplated by Joshua B. Smith had evolved, in the hands of a group of Brahmins and an elite white sculptor, into a monument also commemorating the black soldiery. The Brahmins clearly understood the change and welcomed it; for them the shift from a lone equestrian statue to a narrative relief was not a compromise but an opportunity to enrich the monument's meaning. Committee member John M. Forbes wrote five years before the monument's completion:
The original intention was to have a statue. By tacit consent we have changed to a bas relief, which includes soldiers differing to that extent from the original plan. Col. Lee asks what I think it is intended to record? I think the change from a statue to a bas relief permits us to make it a memento for those who fell at Fort Wagner, and also to make it serve as a record of the Era which the outgoing of the regiment from Boston, and its only memorable battle some sixty days later, marks; but always with Col. Shaw the leading figure in the Memorial. (13)
Neither Saint Gaudens nor the committee went into the project expecting to commemorate African American soldiers, but they ended up doing just that because of a series of unexpected events and the artistic responses they provoked. Nonetheless, even with the format of a single relief panel showing the regiment and its commander together in a march, Saint Gaudens could have decided to minimize the role of the foot soldiers in the composition. Indeed, his plaster sketch, probably done in 1883 84, shows the regiment in very low relief, a kind of background screen for the heroic figure of Shaw. Why then did the sculptor over the next decade bring the soldiers into high relief and devote years of work to individualizing their portraits? In his memoir, Saint Gaudens explained: "In justice to myself I must say here that from the low relief I proposed making when I undertook the Shaw commission, a relief that reasonably could be finished for the limited sum at the command of the committee, I, through my extreme interest in it and its opportunity, increased the conception until the rider grew almost to a statue in the round and the negroes assumed far more importance than I had originally intended." (14)
It is reasonable to infer that, for Saint Gaudens, the shift from a single equestrian statue to a relief format was not a disappointment but rather an opportunity, just as it was for the Brahmin committee. For the committee, it offered an opportunity to expand the commemorative intention to represent more explicitly the real power and accomplishment of abolitionism and to remind the world of Boston's role in it. For Saint Gaudens, who as far as we know had nothing invested in abolitionism or Boston's civic image, the opportunity was an artistic one: an opportunity to create a uniquely artful war memorial. Since the 188os, standardized soldier monuments had come increasingly under attack from both critics and artists, and Saint Gaudens was certainly sympathetic to those who deplored the cheap industrial reproduction of soldier monuments by monument companies and mail order firms. The Shaw Memorial can be understood as a systematic assault on the conventional character of the particular type of war memorial that had become so predominant after the Civil War. The more Saint Gaudens focused on representing the foot soldiers and individualizing them, the more unusual and ambitious the monument became. Their "blackness" once again was not a problem but an opportunity, for it distinguished them even more from the generic white soldier in the standardized war memorials. (15)
Saint Gaudens's interest in bringing the troops into higher relief and treating them as individuals may well have been the reason he made one other crucial decision: to arrange the whole march in profile. Although he never abandoned his plan to have the equestrian figure of Shaw in the front and center of the panel, he did experiment with various possibilities within this general scheme, one of which was a three-quarter perspective with Shaw at the head of the march leading his troops. (16)
In addition to being technically complicated, this solution would have of necessity pushed the troops much farther into the background. By shifting to a profile view, the sculptor had to situate Shaw's figure alongside his troops if Shaw was to remain in the center. This decision, in turn, not only permitted the soldier figures to emerge from the background but also created a composition in which officer and troops move together, side by side, toward their joint destiny. If Shaw had led the march, he would have controlled the rhythm of the whole; but with the rhythm of the march set by the drummer boy at the head, the soldiers following behind have a life and will of their own; the equestrian figure of Shaw then becomes a subtle counterpoint rather than the conductor of the band. And from this contrapuntal arrangement comes the creative tension of the panel: although Shaw is singled out elevated and differentiated he is bound together with the troops on the ground in a common mission that is represented most profoundly by their compelling material presence
Ultimately we can trace convincing artistic reasons for every step Saint Gaudens took as he devised a solution to the problems posed by the monument. This is not to elevate art above ideology or to insist that art is somehow pure and free of ideology. Rather, it is to explain how a particular artistic compulsion could actually overcome the artist's own deep seated racial beliefs, inculcated in him by his culture. if art has a liberating force, it is this: it can compel people to reexamine what they think they already know. Saint Gaudens's monument may not have changed his consciousness, but it has, in some small way, changed ours. By accident and by design, a great work that still speaks to us today came into being.