Early in the Civil War, President Lincoln resisted using former slaves and free African-Americans as soldiers, in part because of the impact that he felt such a strategy would have on the deeply-divided border states. However, after officially issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he authorized the raising of black regiments to fight in the war.
The first such regiment created in the north was the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry. John Andrew, the governor, recruited Robert Gould Shaw, a captain in the 2nd Massachusetts regiment, to train and lead the 54th.
A member of a prominent and wealthy Boston family with connections to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shaw at first refused but ultimately accepted the command.
The necessary recruits were enlisted from the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada by abolitionists, and Shaw oversaw their training at Camp Meigs outside of Boston. Then on May 23, 1863, the regiment of 1000 men marched through the city on their way to board ships and sail south. It was reported that the largest crowd in Boston's history saw them off.
On his horse at the head of his troops, Shaw paused at 44 Beacon Street, his home, to acknowledge his parents and his new wife, whom he had married three weeks earlier.
In July, two months after their departure, the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry led the charge on Fort Wagner near Charleston. Shaw positioned himself at the front of his troops rather than at the rear, which was the usual practice.
He was shot and died at the top of the earthen rampart of the fort. Confederate troops, in what was meant to be an affront, buried him in a mass, unmarked grave with his dead soldiers.
After the war, his family refused the option of having him exhumed and returned home, believing that it was an honor for him to remain buried with his troops.
Fort Wagner was never taken by force, but the charge of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment demonstrated the discipline and bravery of its soldiers in the face of the persistent criticism that blacks would not match their white counterparts in battle.
Thirty-four years later on May 31, 1897, a monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the regiment was dedicated opposite the Massachusetts statehouse on Boston Common.
Sculpted by August SaintGaudens, the highrelief bronze sculpture is often cited as his greatest work, as well as one of the most important pieces of art in the city.
There may be two valuable lines of inquiry here. The first would seek to understand what the monument says. What history and what interpretations of that history does it seek to convey in text and art?
In the introduction to Traditional Monuments, we wrote that traditional war memorials convey a belief in the rightness of the cause, in the glory of dying bravely in battle, and in the honor of self-sacrifice for one’s country. They focus on courage, not carnage, on the uplifting and ennobling quality of proving one’s manhood by making the ultimate sacrifice in combat. Death in war is portrayed as an uplifting and inspirational rather than a dehumanizing experience.
Does the Shaw Monument fit our definition of a traditional war monument in terms of the beliefs that it embodies? If it does, then traditional does not necessarily mean dated or bad art.
A good place to start this investigation would be in our Shaw Monument Gallery
The second line of inquiry involves the rich context of history and resources that surround the monument relating to race and the war. What issues or complexities did the monument leave out in its telling of the story?
A good place to start this line of inquiry would be the 54th Regiment Gallery, which links to our Fulton Archive. The archive is a very rich collection of primary source documents collected for the 100th anniversary of the Shaw Monument by Richard Fulton, a history teacher and currently the Dean of Discipline at Boston Latin School.
No shortage of questions emerge: how did Robert Gould Shaw's perception of his troops change and grow over time? How did August SaintGaudens depict the black soldiers in the monument? What was his attitude toward the black men he hired off the streets of New York as models for his black soldiers in the sculpture.? Does the text of the monument convey the same message as the sculpture, or are their crosscurrents in interpretation that the monument conveys? How was it seen by its contemporaries when it was unveiled? Has the response to the monument changed over time? How realistic was the movie “Glory”, Hollywood's attempt to capture this same piece of history?