Memorializing Black Civil War Heroes

A life-size statue commemorates the heroic contributions of one of the most outstanding military units of the 19th century.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, 1900. Nat'l Gallery of Art (Saint-Gaudens Nat'l Historic Site, Cornish, NH)
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, 1900. Nat'l Gallery of Art (Saint-Gaudens Nat'l Historic Site, Cornish, NH)

The monument has served as a touchstone for the state of race matters from the outset. Saint-Gaudens himself was greatly moved by the sight of the veterans of the 54th as they passed by on parade during the inauguration ceremonies. Addressing the crowd, the notable scholar and Harvard professor William James extolled the vivid representation of the black soldiers in the relief: “There on foot go the dark outcasts, so true to nature that one can almost hear them breathing as they march.”

Yet the solemn dedication of the monument took place just a year after the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which affirmed the manifestly unfair doctrine of separate but equal. Other observers of the new monument looked past its idealism to remark that the work of the soldiers commemorated there had only just begun. The Boston poet Robert Lowell, writing his “For the Union Dead” during the civil rights movement well over 60 years later, saw the work as a persistent call to account for the failure of the country to promote true equality for all of its citizens. To underscore his admonitory tone, Lowell changed the third person of the Latin inscription on the monument from the singular to the plural to serve as his opening epigram: “They gave up everything to serve the republic.”

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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