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Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial

 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through January 20, 2014; Massachusetts Historical Society, February 21–May 23, 2014

Since its 1897 unveiling in Boston, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry has been hailed as a work of staggering power and humanity. The memorial is now the focal point of a noteworthy exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, celebrating the famous 54th, one of the first African-American units mustered into service after the Emancipation Proclamation. The regiment is best known for storming the Confederate stronghold Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C., which resulted in the death of the young newlywed Shaw and the loss of nearly half his regiment. In the face of this brutality, “not a man flinched,” wrote Frederick Douglass’ eldest son Lewis, who survived the battle.

Despite the drama inherent in the 54th’s story—unforgettably portrayed in the 1989 film Glory—the gallery’s approach is under stated and restrained. Where other museums would blow up photographs to larger than life-size or scrawl quotations across the walls, the National Gallery, not surprisingly, relies on the original art—the tintypes and albumen prints of the soldiers themselves—to convey their story. Because of their small size, you must get up close; you literally cannot keep these men and women at arm’s length.

The exhibit fills two rooms—the first devoted to the short but fateful career of the 54th. Familiar faces like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, who helped canvass for the cause of recruiting black soldiers, are included alongside lesser-known names and faces such as William J. Netson, a regimental musician. A large recruiting poster hangs on one wall: “To Colored Men—Pay $13 a Month,” it proclaims. In practice, enlisted soldiers received only $10 a month, and the exhibit includes a letter from Corporal James Henry Gooding to President Lincoln demanding equal pay for equal service. The enlistment roll from the regiment’s Company A is particularly moving, listing the names of mere boys of 17 to mature men in their 40s and beyond.

The exhibit’s centerpiece is the memorial itself, which dominates the second room. This is actually a plaster-cast version of the bronze monument that still stands along Beacon Street, outside Bos ton Common, and has been exhibited in various sites since its completion. Saint-Gaudens was careful to not make the soldiers generic and interchangeable. He used African-American models (not members of the 54th), striving to convey their individuality. A boon for art history aficionados, the exhibit also includes several mock-ups of soldiers’ heads that Saint-Gaudens created as he worked out the final piece, and a model of the full memorial that includes Shaw and the soldiers walking in the opposite direction.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.