By Chris Pittarelli
Sitting atop Boston Common, across from the Massachusetts State House stands a monument to Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment, the 54th Massachusetts. The 54th was formed in the winter of 1863 and placed into federal service after Governor John A. Andrew who, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and consulting African American leaders of his plan to raise a regiment of black troops, placed a call for men of color to volunteer to join in the defense of the Union. Before this time, there were no colored troops in active service. It was decided by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that enlisted non-commissioned officers could be African American, the unit would be commanded by white officers only (Bielakowski 2013 p. 205). Over 1000 men enlisted in the 54th within weeks of the unit being commissioned and was placed under the command of a COL. Robert Gould Shaw, a member of a prominent Boston abolitionist family and veteran of Antietam. They would begin training at Camp Meigs in Readville, near Boston. Initially relegated to manual labor, they would finally see action beginning with the Battle of James Island, South Carolina against confederate pickets, they then followed with the battle of Olustee, the only major battle to be fought in Florida, as well as taking part in Gen. Sherman’s March to the sea at Honey Hill, in Jasper county, South Carolina.
The men of the 54th after enlisting learned that they would be paid the reduced wage of 10 dollars, minus 3 dollars for clothing as opposed to the standard 13 dollars that white soldiers would receive. The men, including officers refused pay, and continued fighting for the union until congress authorized back pay in 1864. (Rose)
The regiment would become most famous with the difficult assault on Battery Wagner, near Morris Island, South Carolina. The 54th took the lead in the initial charge and had reached the wall before being repelled. They regiment lost, 74 men, 3 officers. Killed in the battle was Col. Shaw as he led the way. The white troops that followed suffered heavy casualties as well. Sergeant William Carney, who bravely recovered the colors during battle would ultimately be awarded the Medal of Honor for Gallantry, the first by an African American. This battle would serve as the climax of the film Glory distributed by Tristar Pictures which is based on the formation of the units and exploits of the 54th Massachusetts and definitely worth seeing if you have not already.
When Governor Andrew was requesting subscriptions for the monument he stated:
“The monument is intended not only to mark the public gratitude to the fallen hero, who at a critical moment assumed a perilous responsibility, but also to commemorate that great event, wherein he was a leader, by which the title of colored men as citizen-soldiers was fixed beyond recall. In such a work, all who honor youthful dedication to a noble cause and who rejoice in the triumph of freedom should have an opportunity to contribute.”
The Shaw Memorial would be designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of the foremost sculptors of the time. The bronze relief sculpture would take over 14 years to create and with most of the regiment killed or unavailable had 40 men hired to stand as models. By doing this he was able to capture individuals and variously different profiles. Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Ireland and immigrated to the united states at the age of one. By the age of 13 he began apprenticing as cameo cutter and for the better part of his life he earned a living from this job. He is recognized as one of the first Americans to study sculpture in Paris. Prior to creating the Shaw Monument, he was best known for his monument to Admiral David Farragut, Madison Square Garden in New York. Later works include the Sherman Monument, erected in Grand Army Plaza in New York in 1903. (editors of Encyclopedia Britannica)
The monument as it stands today depicts the 54th as they marched down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863. Added in 1982 on the lower portion are the names of 62 men killed during the assault on Battery Wagner. On the back is also an inscription by then Harvard President Charles W. Elliot (pictured Below)
On a personal note, this monument was one of the first things I wanted to see when I moved to Boston and it is something that any visitor to the city should take time to see. It really is breathtaking and a monument that should not be missed. For more information on Robert Gould Shaw, and the 54th there is an excellent book Blue eyed child of fortune: The Civil War letters of Robert Gould Shaw, University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, September 20th, 2010, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Augustus-Saint-Gaudens, accessed April 04th, 2017
Rose, Willie Lee (1964). Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Bielakowski, Alexander M. (2013). Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-59884-427-6.
Photo Credits Christopher Pittarelli