Up close with Saint-Gaudens's Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment
Although his name will forever be linked to numismatics, Saint-Gaudens’s best-known creation is his Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, a bronze relief sculpture located at the Boston Common.
Robert Gould Shaw was born into a family of white abolitionists in Massachusetts. Following some time in New York and Europe, Shaw returned to Boston to attend Harvard University from 1856-1859. Two years later, he entered the service of the Union army. In 1862, Shaw—with the encouragement of his abolitionist father—took command of the newly formed all-black Massachusetts 54th regiment.
Shaw was a hero on and off the battlefield. He insisted that his men boycott service until Congress paid black soldiers equal to their white counterparts. On another occasion, he refused orders to indiscriminately fire upon the citizens of Darien, Georgia, as he desired not “to be made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance.” Colonel Shaw’s leadership of the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth came to an abrupt expiration on July 18th, 1863, as Shaw took a barrage of bullets to the chest while spearheading a charge against Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
Unveiled in 1897, Saint-Gaudens’s 14’x11’ memorial honors Shaw’s bravery and sacrifice at a time when these deeds were most foreboding. An inscription on the relief reads OMNIA RELINQVIT / SERVARE REMPVBLICAM ("He left behind everything to save the Republic").
Among the accomplishments of this particular artwork is the realist (non-derogatory) depiction of African-American soldiers, a true-to-life artistic style that was in too short supply in 19th-century America.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was a prolific artist. His sculptures, statues, and busts are found across the United States and Europe. While the day may never come when you or I can own a Saint-Gaudens numismatic piece, we can and should revel in his profound public art.