Learning in Place: Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment

Posted on: September 11th, 2013 by Priya Chhaya 4 Comments

The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, located across Beacon Street from the State House in Boston, serves as a reminder of the costs of the Civil War. Credit: Zemistor, Flickr.
The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, located across Beacon Street from the State House in Boston, serves as a reminder of the costs of the Civil War.

From where I stood the sun was bright, highlighting the perfect green of a lawn spotted with mingling groups of people, while sending slashes of light across the front of the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial. Located on a far corner of Boston Common, the faces brought into focus in the sculpture were individual, real, and determined.

As if on a loop, tour bus after tour bus whipped by and I caught snatches of voices talking about the “brave men of the 54th,” “Glory,” and “Denzel Washington.” But amid the cacophony one voice rose above the others -- a single park ranger animatedly describing the history of the first documented African-American regiment. He was speaking in front of the memorial to a group of visitors at what I realized later was the start of the Black Heritage Trail tour of Beacon Hill.

Robert G. Shaw led the regiment, famed for the battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. Credit: Priya Chhaya.
Robert Shaw led the 54th Regiment; the monument depicts the men marching down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 as they left Boston to head south.

I’ll admit that I was hovering. I intended to just take a picture or two before moving on, but paused to listen as the ranger presented regimental history, Robert Shaw’s character, the inception and conception of the memorial, and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ methodology and symbology -- all in one coherent twenty-minute set. Interspersed was a comparison of the reality of history with the “reel-ity” of history as it was presented in the movie Glory.

Using the full scope of place, the ranger took us through the regiment’s arrival in Boston, describing the walk south on Beacon Street past the State House across the street. With a sweep of his hand he pointed out where Shaw’s family stood, while describing the racial tension of the city -- working past assumptions about what people believed based on geography.

The Memorial stands across from the State House. Augustus Saint-Gaudens took nearly fourteen years to complete the bronze monument. Credit: Priya Chhaya.
The Memorial stands across from the State House.

When describing the sculpture itself he asked us questions to discern if we could see what Saint-Gaudens wanted us to see: real people rather than caricature, the full regiment rather than just the leader. Then he described the unveiling of the memorial in May of 1897 and how the survivors of the 54th walked north towards the memorial, returning full circle.

It’s easy to say that we could have learned all of this in a room anywhere in the world. It is true, we could have. We could have looked at pictures of the sculpture and used digital images to zoom in on particular details without even being on the same continent.

The Boston Common by the Memorial. The monument depicts the 54th Regiment marching down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 as they left Boston to head south. Credit: suu1droot, Flickr.
The Boston Common by the Memorial.

But I’ve seen the memorial twice before: once in this very spot, sans live narration, on my way to Lexington and Concord, and again when the plaster cast was on display in Washington, D.C. at the National Gallery of Art. The first time I arrived knowing a lot, but don’t remember if I understood the geographical context. With the second encounter, I lost a full layer of meaning available to those who saw the memorial in Boston.

So I’m glad that I hovered, that I ditched my schedule and listened, because on that bright, August day the history on the corner of Beacon and Park felt more real and more tangible than ever before.

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Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.


4 Responses

  1. Angela George

    September 11, 2013

    We had just watched Glory in my 8th grade history class after studying the Civil War in October of 1993. We were living in West Warwick, RI. I asked my Grandpa to take me to Boston so I could see the Memorial of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th. I remember how crisp it was outside that morning when we got to Boston. We ate lunch at the best side street pizzeria. (I wish I remembered the name of it). We walked up to that Memorial and I thought I was looking into their eyes… chiseled faces. Chills went into my bones. I was in awe. I didn’t want to leave. I was only 13 and I remember having tears in my eyes. Such Courage. Can’t believe that was 20 years ago. I would love to have the opportunity to bring my children there one day. Alabama is quite a drive :) Thanks for sharing this. Brought back a very fond memory of my childhood.

    Angela George
    Opelika, AL

  2. ML

    September 11, 2013

    An exhibition celebrating the Shaw Memorial — Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial — opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, on September 15 and runs through January 20, 2014.

    Further information can be found at http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2013/shaw.html

    Washington, DC

  3. Kathy Kottaridis

    September 12, 2013

    Two things: names of the troops weren’t engraved on the monument until the 1980s which goes to show that important monuments can adapt to changing needs and, in this case, become even more poignant representations of sacrifice. Second, consider a run up to the St. Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish NH. There is a copy of the Shaw in the garden there along with many other familiar public monuments.

  4. Priya Chhaya
    Priya Chhaya

    September 12, 2013


    That’s a great memory. I love that everyone has a story. Thanks for sharing that with us.


    I actually heard about the exhibition yesterday. The Washington Post ran a profile on it the same day the blog post went up. I’m looking forward to seeing it!


    The St. Gaudens NHS is on my list. Thanks for the additional information on the names of the troops. I love thinking about about memorials and change, especially in terms of place, time and meaning.