Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment
The famous American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens spent over a decade creating this bronze bas- relief monument, which is generally considered one of his finest works. It commemorates the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first volunteer regiment of African-American soldiers, active during the Civil War. The Regiment was led by white colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of prominent Boston abolitionists.
Shaw and his regiment are famous for their assault on Fort Wagner in 1863. Outnumbered, many of the troops, including Shaw, were killed and buried in a mass grave by Confederate soldiers. One of the soldiers who survived the assault, William H. Carney, received a Medal of Honor in recognition of his bravery. The 54th also reportedly included Frederick Douglass’ two sons and the grandson of abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
In the relief, an angel accompanies the men as they march down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863, leaving Boston to head south. She holds an olive branch, which symbolizes peace, and poppies, which symbolize death. Through this imagery, Saint-Gaudens alludes to both the soldiers’ individual fates and the North’s eventual victory. Other features of the relief are realistic, rather than symbolic. For example, each soldier’s face is markedly distinct, endowed with a unique appearance and expression. Saint-Gaudens’ respect for the soldiers is shown through his efforts to portrays them as individuals, not simply as a group. In 1982, the names of the African-American soldiers who died were added to the reverse side of the memorial.