Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ homage to the 54th Massachusetts continues to gain fame today as an evocative reminder of how black soldiers helped change history.
As Francis Shaw struggled to make sense of his son’s death in the seemingly fruitless Union attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863, he wrote wistfully to a friend: “We do thank God that our darling…was chosen, among so many equals, to be the martyred hero of the downtrodden of our land.”
The prominent New York abolitionist’s darling son was Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the famed 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment in the war’s Eastern theater. On July 18, Shaw and 115 of his men were killed in an unsuccessful attack against the small earthen fort that guarded the southern approach to Charleston Harbor. Another 156 were wounded or captured.
Only 25 at the time of his death and married for merely 76 days, Shaw had made many sacrifices to help prove to a skeptical nation that black soldiers could be just as competent and resilient in combat as their white counterparts. Although the 54th was torn apart during the assault and would never fight in another major engagement, the unit’s courageous performance at Wagner had validated its existence—and then some.
It was for this reason, despite the loss of his son, that the elder Shaw and his fellow abolitionists felt triumphant in their grief. The 54th Massachusetts had changed both the course of the war and history. By December 1863, 60 black regiments had been formed in the Union Army, not as gravediggers, teamsters or cooks, but soldiers. When the war ended 16 months later, nearly 200,000 black men had donned a blue uniform.
After the war many of the men who had served with Robert Gould Shaw wanted to erect a monument to the 54th and its martyred colonel. Veterans of the unit raised money to build a memorial on Morris Island, where Fort Wagner was located. Justifiably concerned about unstable ground conditions on the island and inevitable local animosity, however, they decided instead to donate the funds toward the establishment of the first free school for black children in Charleston. The school was named after Shaw.
People in Boston also wanted to honor Shaw’s memory. By 1865, a group of 21 distinguished citizens had formed a committee devoted to raising a monument. It would take time for the movement to gather steam, but in 1884 the committee commissioned the accomplished sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a 54th Massachusetts’ memorial. No other artist of the post–Civil War era was so recognized and honored for his work, and none approached Saint-Gaudens’ success in creating grand and moving public monuments to American heroes. Saint-Gaudens already had achieved fame in 1876 with his monument to Admiral David Farragut in New York City, but this new memorial would become his signature piece.
For a dozen years Saint-Gaudens labored on the monument. After many false starts, he finally completed a bronze casting of it that was unveiled on Memorial Day 1897. The dedication ceremony included 65 surviving veterans of the 54th Massachusetts, who led a parade past the new memorial on the Boston Common—where it still stands today.
“It has often been called the greatest work of public sculpture in American history,” said Alison Luchs, a curator of sculpture for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. “There are so many important issues that it deals with, and it deals with them at the highest possible artistic level. Both for subject and for quality, it’s a knockout.”
Saint-Gaudens’ masterpiece combines the real with the allegorical and projects a fine balance between explosive energy and restrained power. Measuring about 15 feet high, 18 feet wide and 3 feet deep, the sculpture depicts Colonel Shaw astride his horse, every inch the professional soldier, in dramatic high relief. Behind him, his troops push forward with intense determination. Above these larger-than-life depictions flies an angelic figure, bearing poppies (symbolizing death, sleep and remembrance) and olive branches (representing peace).
“When [soldiers] go off to war, it can be dramatic and glorious,” Luchs said. “But in this case, it is people who were doomed. You can see in the individual faces the understanding of what they’re facing, you can see it in the cadence of the way it’s designed. There’s a rhythm in the way they march in step, and there is this inexorable forward movement, like a wave.”
Saint-Gaudens undertook a major research effort while working on the memorial between 1884 and 1896. His dedication to technical detail led him to sculpt Shaw’s horse using casts made from real horses (which led to at least one dying from pneumonia), and to ask young African Americans in New York and Boston to model for portraits-in-the-round, which are among the finest he ever created.
Despite his meticulous efforts and the public acclaim for his work, Saint-Gaudens was never completely satisfied with the Shaw Memorial and strived to improve on it for the rest of his life. He subsequently created several plaster copies—treated to look as though they were gilded or cast from metal—that incorporated a number of variations on the original.
Improving upon his work, however, was not Saint-Gaudens’ only motivation. “The final memorial was fixed in place and immovable, and he was so proud of it he wanted to exhibit it, he wanted to send it to Paris,” Luchs said. “That was more practical with a version made of plaster.”
Saint-Gaudens exhibited his first plaster revision of the memorial in 1898 at the Paris Salon. He made further revisions to it after this show and then exhibited the updated version in 1900 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. There the artist was recognized for his great achievement and awarded both a grand prize and the coveted Legion of Honor by the French government, an honor only rarely bestowed on foreigners.
He exhibited what was to be the final plaster version of his masterpiece in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. There, it was purchased and put on display by the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts (now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery).
In 1900 Saint-Gaudens was diagnosed with cancer. He subsequently decided to move from New York City to a house and studio in Cornish, N.H., where he and his family had spent their summers since 1885. He continued to work, albeit at a diminished rate, and even became the center of the “Cornish Colony” of artists and writers. But he was no longer able to travel or devote his waning energies to the Shaw Memorial.
Saint-Gaudens died on August 3, 1907. Twelve years later, the state of New Hampshire chartered a private, nonprofit corporation to preserve and exhibit his home, gardens and studios. The property operated as a museum from 1927 to 1965. That year, the memorial’s trustees donated it to the National Park Service, and today the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site is the only NPS site in New Hampshire.
The same year that Saint-Gaudens’ New Hampshire home was memorialized, the final plaster version of the Shaw Memorial in Buffalo fell victim to a general post–World War I distaste for martial themes. The Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts covered it over with a wall, and it remained hidden from view until after the end of World War II. In 1949 the academy donated it to the Saint-Gaudens Memorial in Cornish.
For the next 40 or so years, the memorial was exhibited outside at the Saint-Gaudens Memorial. “It was outdoors, so it really needed conservation,” Luchs said. “It was under a roof, but it was open to the elements. They decided that the conditions were just not good enough for it, and it would be better to get a more durable version made by casting it in bronze. [That led to] the question of what to do with the plaster; they didn’t have a separate indoor space. They decided that it is worthy of the National Gallery of Art, and we agreed.”
In 1997, the centennial of Saint-Gaudens’ original bronze creation, a new bronze version was created in New Hampshire and the final plaster version at the NPS site was disassembled, restored and transported to the National Gallery’s West Building. When the plaster version was installed at the gallery, it marked the ninth time in its history that its more than 20 sections had been completely dismantled and reassembled. Also, for the first time in about 50 years, the faces of the soldiers hidden behind Shaw’s horse were revealed. Although never visible to the public, those faces had been individually modeled in perfect detail.
Despite four decades of exposure to extremes in temperature and humidity, a thorough examination revealed that the memorial was generally in good condition. However, it also showed rusting and deterioration of the original iron armature, misalignment of some sections, cracks and chips in the plaster, and discoloration and flaking in the restored decorative patina. Analysis of the surface also revealed some two-dozen layers of paint, gold and brass leaf, and clear coatings and waxes that had been applied to the memorial over the years.
After being examined and dismantled in Cornish, the sculpture was moved to Boston, where conservators removed old restoration materials, consolidated and stabilized the plaster, filled losses, treated the surface to match its original texture and sealed it with synthetic resin. The memorial was then transported to the National Gallery, where its sections were reinstalled on a new stainless steel armature, the new joins plastered, and the entire surface patinated and glazed to replicate as closely as possible the gilded appearance of Saint-Gaudens’ original. The gallery unveiled the memorial, along with a number of related pieces and studies, on September 21, 1997.
This tribute to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts is now on a renewable loan to the National Gallery, and it is unlikely it will be moved anytime soon. “It’s in everyone’s interests for it to stay here,” Luchs said. “The historic site in Cornish doesn’t need it because they have the bronze. Moving it is a major production…and it’s wonderful here. It looks great, it means a lot to people and our designers really went all-out to set up a beautiful installation for it.”
Building that installation involved removing a 20-foot-long by 15-foot-wide section of the gallery’s original terra cotta wall and installing a massive steel beam to create a grand niche for the sculpture; remilling, refinishing and carefully fitting the original chestnut oak flooring; and splitting, polishing and installing rare slabs of rose marble, matching those originally installed in the gallery’s West Building, around the memorial’s new pedestal as base molding. A state-of-the-art exhibition case was also built with fiber-optic lighting and special nonreflective glass to display a number of early plaster sketches of the memorial, the angel and six portrait heads of black soldiers. Most of these objects have been publicly displayed only a few times since 1908, and some of the portraits were never incorporated into the memorial.
The National Gallery wing with the Shaw Memorial was closed for renovations this past February and will remain off-limits for at least two years. “That has nothing to do with the exhibit or the way we value it,” Luchs explained. “The sculpture is simply part of an entire quadrant of the building that is undergoing renovation to its technical systems. The whole West Building has been going through this, and it just happens that it’s that section’s turn. We would have moved the memorial if we could have, but technical complexities made that impossible. It would also would have been risky to the sculpture. So instead we have boxed it up with protective wooden structures so it will be safe during the work.”
The overall exhibit is temporarily closed, however, a number of the items, including the early plaster sketches, have been moved to the gallery’s ground floor and are available for viewing there. “We can’t show the full Shaw Memorial, [but] we will show the sketches that Cornish left to us,” Luchs said. In the meantime, the newly created bronze version in Cornish can still be seen, as can the original bronze sculpture on Boston Common.
Since its unveiling, Saint-Gaudens’ masterpiece has inspired countless poems, books and even an award- winning Hollywood film, Glory, in 1989. Kevin Jarre wrote the screenplay after happening upon the memorial and noticing for the first time that black soldiers had indeed fought in the Civil War. He recognized that a movie offered a significant opportunity to bring the story of the “Glory Regiment” to a new audience. Saint-Gaudens’ memorial, through its various forms and spheres of influence, continues to be the country’s most powerful reminder of the pioneers who helped prove that black men were as worthy as any of the title soldier.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.