The Other Side of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

Shaw Memorial, 54th MassachusettsI’ve spent quite a bit of time watching others at the Shaw Memorial. Visitors marvel at Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s beautiful bronze relief of Shaw and his men marching to their glorious deaths outside of Charleston, SC, but few walk down the steps to take a look at the reverse side. They miss a great deal of what gives this beautiful monument its meaning.

Their story is incomplete without an understanding of the potential risks both the white officers and their black enlisted men faced at the hands of Confederates as well as the discriminatory practices of their own government. To claim that these men remained “cheerful amid hardships and privations” is a bit of an exaggeration given that many black units protested (violently in some cases) throughout the pay crisis. At least one man paid with his life after attacking a white officer.

But what I find so interesting is that there is no explicit statement regarding the role these men played in ending slavery. Their contribution was decidedly to the “Union Cause”. Perhaps the monument itself represents emancipation and the destruction of slavery. I would suggest that we use this as an opportunity to remind ourselves that Americans did not necessarily view emancipation as an accomplishment distinct from Union.

7 comments… add one

  • Scott A. MacKenzie Jul 20, 2013

    I also view the question of Union and emancipation as linked but consider the international context at the time. Nowhere else on the planet would even entertain the idea of racial equality. Much of the world either had been colonized by Europeans, came under European domination, or was about to be in the “race for Africa” or “race for the Pacific” in the 1870s and 1880s. Moreover, previous slave societies in the Caribbean had abolished slavery but without even the hint of equality. Only in the United States and its guiding principles of “all men are created equal” could African Americans hope to attain this goal. So yes they fought for the Union because they believed in it. Sadly, it was not to be.

  • Patrick Young Jul 20, 2013

    As an aside, the National Park Service maintains the home of Irish immigrant Augustus Saint-Gaudens. in New Hampshire. There are exact copies of the Shaw piece as well as of dozens of other famous statues on site. It is amazing.

  • M.D. Blough Jul 20, 2013

    I got my nephew a book on the memorial (He lives in Cambridge and we had just visited the monument together). One of the most important things about the memorial, in an era when, if blacks were acknowledged at all in the media, it was generally in demeaning caricatures, is that the face of each infantryman in the high relief was individual, sculpted from live models, and even their uniforms were individualized. They are portrayed as soldiers, going to battle against enormous odds, with as much dignity as Shaw. http://picturingamerica.neh.gov/downloads/pdfs/Resource_Guide_Chapters/PictAmer_Resource_Book_Chapter_10A.pdf

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2013

      That is indeed an important point to remember. Thanks, Margaret.

    • Bob Huddleston Jul 20, 2013

      Weren’t the models relatives, children or grandchildren, of men who served in the 54th?

  • Rick Jul 20, 2013

    Just came across your interesting blog today. I am doing research on my great grandfather (10th CT Vol. Infantry Reg. Company C) who enlisted October 1861 and mustered out at the end of the war 1865 as a 1st Sgt. I discovered that the 10th CT was out Fort or Battery Wagner and participated in the battle.

    Researching this yesterday (ironically the 150th anniv.) I discovered that two days before on James Island the 54th MA and 10th CT fought side by side in repelling a surprise attack by a larger Confederate force. In the book of the letters of Robert Gould Shaw there are quotes from officers and men of the 10th CT that praise the black troops of the 54th for their valor and credit them with saving the day.

    Very moving to realize that my great grandfather was part of that history.

  • Craig L. Jul 20, 2013

    Excerpted from the current Wikipedia entry for Matthew Broderick:

    “In March 2010, Broderick was featured in the US version of the BBC program Who Do You Think You Are?. By his own admission, his participation in the ancestry research program, emotionally reconnected Broderick with the role he played in Glory twenty-two years earlier, as he discovered a paternal great-great-grandfather, Robert Martindale (incidentally sharing the same prenom as his Glory character), who actually was a Union soldier. A veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, Martindale, who belonged to the 20th Connecticut, was killed in the aftermath of the Battle of Atlanta, and was eventually interred in an unnamed grave at the Marietta National Cemetery. Having identified the grave with the help of historian Brad Quinlin, Broderick’s research enabled him to give his ancestor his name back.[22] In the same program Broderick discovered that his paternal grandfather, James Joseph Broderick II, whom he had never known, had been a highly decorated combat medic in World War I, he having earned his distinctions during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.[2]“

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