September 11, 2013

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

  • By: Priya Chhaya
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.

While her day job involves working with preservation professionals as an associate manager for online content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

@priyastoric

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