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Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Shaw Memorial Unveiled in Boston on May 31, 1897

Boston’s most iconic public monument, the Shaw Memorial, was officially unveiled on May 31, 1897.  The homage to the 54th Black Infantry Regiment of Boston is considered one of America’s most significant Civil War memorials.   It was the first public monument to accurately depict black soldiers in military uniform.

The memorial was created by immigrant Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), considered by many to be America’s greatest sculptor of the 19th century.  The memorial was unveiled on Memorial Day, located near the site where Civil War regiments mustered on Boston Common before going off to war.

Notable guests at the ceremony included acclaimed Black inventor and leader Booker T. Washington, philosopher and writer William James, along with veterans of the 54th Regiment and the families of the soldiers.  

It took Saint-Gaudens fourteen years to complete the memorial, partly because there was an early disagreement within the memorial commission about how the piece should look, but also because  the perfectionist artist approached the project in a painstaking manner: seeking out forty black men in New York to use as models, from which he chose 16 to appear on the final memorial.  He also spent considerable time wrangling with the commission about the exact wording of the inscriptions.

Of the delay, Saint Gaudens wrote, “My own delay I excuse on the ground that a sculptor’s work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power  to execute a result that will not be a disgrace….A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten, but the bronze remains, to amuse or shame the populace.”

Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was born on March 1, 1848 on Charlemount Street in Dublin at the height of the Irish Famine, when millions of Irish were fleeing Ireland to places like Boston, New York, Montreal, St. John and other eastern port cities.  His father Bernard Saint-Gaudens was a French cobbler who had "a wonderfully complex mixture of a fierce French accent and Irish brogue."  His mother, Mary McGuinness, was born in Bally Mahon, County Longford, to Arthur McGuinness and Mary Daly.

The family emigrated to Boston in September 1848, when Augustus was six months old.  They stayed here for a while and then moved to New York, where Augustus’ brother and fellow-sculptor Louis was born.  

Augustus spent time around Boston, since his wife's family lived in Roxbury and he had numerous commissions here.  He was highly regarded by Boston's cultural leaders like architect H. H. Richardson, who recommended him for the Shaw Memorial, and Charles McKim, the architect who designed the stone monument in which the bronze statue is placed.

Saint Gaudens describes the day of the unveiling in his memoir, Reminiscences, written with his son Homer. 

“At the unveiling there stood before the relief sixty-five of those veterans.  Some of the officers were clad in the uniforms they had worn during the Civil War, and rode on horseback.  But the negro troops…came in their time-worn frock-coats, coats used only on great occasions.  Many of them were bent and crippled, many with white heads, some with bouquets, and, the inevitable humorous touch, one with a carpet-bag.”

When the memorial was unveiled, Augustus recalled that, “the salute boomed from the cannons on the Common, and was answered by others in the harbor, and the head of the procession began to march by.  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,” a recall of what I had heard and see thirty years before from my cameo-cutter’s window.  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.”

Find more details of the Shaw Memorial unveiling at Mass Moments, published by Mass Humanities

The Shaw Memorial is located along Boston's Black Heritage Trail and Irish Heritage Trail.

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