Saturday, July 18, 2009

Shaw & the Massachusetts 54th Memorial

Shaw Memorial, originally uploaded by Auntie Lola.

One of my favorite works of public art is the memorial comemmorating Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This bronze bas relief resides on the edge of the Boston Common, across the street from the Massachusetts State House.
It was the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who also sculpted the Lincoln Monument in Chicago, and the Minuteman Statue in Lexington, among many other works. Saint-Gaudens worked on the sculpture for fourteen years, and the work was unveiled and dedicated in 1897.

"There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man." ~~~ William James, at the dedication.

Shaw was killed leading his men on July18th, 1983, in Charleston, South Carolina, in the assault on Confederate-held Battery Wagner. His body was stripped and robbed, before being interred with his men in a mass grave, considered an "insult" by the Confederates. Many of the white officers bodies were later exhumed and buried elsewhere, but Shaw's father refused to move his son's body. Frank Shaw wrote in a letter to the regimental surgeon, "We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers....We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a body-guard he has!"

Two months after marching through Boston,

half the regiment was dead;

at the dedication,

William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone

in the city's throat.

Its Colonel is as lean

as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,

a greyhound's gently tautness;

he seems to wince at pleasure,

and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,

peculiar power to choose life and die--

when he leads his black soldiers to death,

he cannot bend his back.

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