A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Memorial honors unity, glory of one of the first African American regiments

At first, Robert Gould Shaw was reluctant to accept an appointment to lead the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, one of the first African American regiments in the Civil War.

Often described as the pampered son of a wealthy abolitionist Boston family, Gould attended Harvard from 1856 to 1859. Instead of completing his studies, he traveled around Europe and, as young people are sometimes wont to wonder, he was unsure of his purpose in life.

When the Civil War began in 1861, he enlisted in the 7th New York Infantry, and served in the defense of Washington D.C. In May of that year, he joined the 2nd Massachusetts as a second lieutenant, serving for two years and attaining the rank of Captain. Soon after, when the Governor of Massachusetts sought a leader for the 54th Infantry, he recruited Shaw.

The young man had to be persuaded by his mother to take on the challenge.

Training his troops in Readville, Massachusetts during the early months of 1863, he came to respect the 54th’s pluck and dedication. When he learned that black soldiers were to receive less pay than whites, Shaw led a boycott of all wages until the situation was changed.

On May 28, 1863, Shaw and his regiment departed for service in South Carolina.

“There is not the least doubt,” he wrote his mother, “that we shall leave the state, with as good a regiment, as any that has marched.”

In an eloquent letter to his young wife, Annie Kneeland Haggerty, whom he had married just 26 days earlier, Shaw concluded, “I shall never regret having taken this step, as far as myself am concerned; for while I was undecided I felt ashamed of myself, as if I were cowardly.”

At first, the 54th saw no action, but on July 16 they were finally involved in a skirmish at James Island. Two days later, they were dispatched to lead the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Buttressed by 14 heavy artillery pieces and protected by 30-foot high walls filled with earth and sand, the fort was nearly impregnable. The Union Navy had not been able to penetrate, and on July 16, an attack led by Colonel Shaw and the 54th stormed and captured the outer rifle pits. Nine other regiments entered the fort but were driven out by heavy losses in hand-to-hand combat.

Shaw was killed in the charge.

His body was stripped and thrown into a trench with 45 of his men. Nevertheless, his father found it fitting. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish him better company,” the elder Shaw declared.

A bas relief memorial in honor of Colonel Shaw and the 54th, and designed by the celebrated artist Augustus St. Gaudens, now stands on the Boston Common opposite the State House. Defying tradition, the artist included the men of the regiment in the sculpture. He hired African American men to pose, and modeled about 40 different heads to use as studies.

This was the first time a monument depicted blacks realistically, and not as stereotypes.

The motto, OMNIA RELINQVIT SERVARE REMPVBLICAM — He forsook all to preserve the public weal – is inscribed on the monument, and 34 stars along the top, represent the states of the Union in 1863.

On May 31, 1897, the day of the unveiling, the weather was overcast, but there was a festive feeling as spectators lined the streets. Two large American flags covered the sculpture. At 11:17 a.m., two young nephews of Robert Gould Shaw unveiled the memorial. The crowd cheered, a band struck up “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and an artillery battery on the Common fired a 17 gun salute while three war ships in the harbor fired a 21 gun salute.

When the philosopher William James dedicated, he stirred the crowd with these words: “There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man. There on horseback among them, in the very habit as he lived, sits the blue-eyed child of fortune.”

Black veterans from the 55th Massachusetts and the 5th Cavalry were also present. Among the men of the 54th, Sergeant Carney carried the American Flag, and the 54th veterans laid a large wreath of lilies of the valley before the monument. The scene deeply moved Saint-Gaudens:

“Many of them were bent and crippled, many with white heads, some with bouquets… The impression of those old soldiers, passing the very spot where they left for the war so many years before, thrills me even as I write these words. They faced and saluted the relief, with the music playing ‘John Brown’s Body’…. They seemed as if returning from the war, the troops of bronze marching in the opposite direction, the direction in which they had left for the front, and the young men there represented now showing these veterans the vigor and hope of youth. It was a consecration.”

More information about the memorial is available here.

The 1989 film “Glory” — starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick – tells the story of Shaw and his regiment.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at Calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit her website.

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