At 11 feet by 14 feet, the massive bronze relief depicts a row of lifelike soldiers marching with their bed rollers, canteens, drums and guns, led by a stoic Shaw on horseback. An ethereal female allegorical figure floating above the gritty realism below carries an olive branch for peace and an armful of poppies, symbolizing death. Note that it was not until 1982 that the Friends of the Public Garden raised funds to restore the monument and finally inscribed the names of the fallen black soldiers who died alongside Shaw.
“One thing I always like to draw attention to is the individual faces of soldiers,” says Quigley. “It’s a masterpiece when you look at the whole monument, but it’s in the minute details that I think the genius of Saint-Gaudens really shines. . “
The sculptor hired men to pose for the monument, so he could create individual soldiers rather than generic idealized figures. Quigley points out that some are old, some are young, some have beards, some are naked. “Whenever I have people on tour, I always ask them to look at these individual faces and describe the emotions they see,” he continues. “I think it is important to underline this because, in 1897, when the monument was completed, the men captured in bronze by Saint-Gaudens are not the typical representation of the late 19th century of African Americans.
A Black History Trail
Today the memorial is part of the Boston African American National Historic Site, a collection of pre-Civil War structures scattered throughout Beacon Hill and connected by the 1.6 mile Black heritage trail (BHT). Stops along the way – many now private residences that you can only see from the outside – include the 1807 Charles Street Meeting House, a secluded church that later hosted speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth; the Phillips School of 1824, one of Boston’s first integrated schools; and the residences of abolitionists, underground railroad drivers and black militia leaders.
At the end of the BHT you will find the African American History Museum (MAAH), which includes two historic structures open to the public: the African Meeting House from 1806, the oldest surviving black church in America; and the 1835 Abiel Smith School, the first public school for free black Bostonians. The church has been restored to its 1855 appearance, while the school now houses exhibits and a museum shop.
Although the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial has been around for over a century, it is still part of Boston history. Last summer, when the George Floyd protests sparked debates over the role of monuments, some townspeople questioned the continued relevance of the memorial. Is it, for example, perpetuating a story of a white savior? And why should the white officer have such a prominent place on his black soldiers? “It’s important to look at the difference between Shaw on his horse and walking men,” says Quigley. “The memorial is a testament to the fact that these men fight to end slavery, but do so in an isolated regiment.”
Friends of the public garden has just completed a $ 3 million restoration of the monument in partnership with the City of Boston, MAAH and the National Park Service. As part of the overhaul, restorers embellished the bronze relief in a studio in Woburn while stone restorers from nearby Lexington worked on the granite and marble base.
Over the years, the monument has inspired the orchestral work of composer Charles Ives “Three Places in New England” (1911-1914) and Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead” (1964), and appeared in the credits end of Glory. The Restoration ensures that Robert Gould Shaw and, perhaps more importantly, the Revolutionary Black Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment will remain beacons of hope and heroism for generations to come.