By Dan Murphy and Beth Treffeisen
It was only one day after the sword at the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial on the Boston Common was again reported damaged on Tuesday, Feb. 21, until the Friends of the Public Garden took action.
Joshua Craine of Daedalus, Inc., was quickly contracted to replace the saber – a task the Watertown sculpture-conservation firm has handled on numerous occasions since the late 1980s. While the sword was originally crafted from bronze like the rest of the memorial, the material was switched to PVC at that time to not only save the nonprofit Friends group money, but also to minimize potential future damage to the monument.
“It’s a really important sculpture – one of the most important in the nation, not just the city – so we try to keep it looking as good as it can,” Craine said.
According to Boston Police, a call was received at around 7:45 a.m. on Feb. 21 saying that the sword had been removed from the memorial and was resting at its base. Detectives responded to 75 Boylston St. and took photographs at the scene before informing a Park Ranger, who notified the Friends of the incident. The cause of the damage remains unknown since no witnesses have come forward, but police are still categorizing it as an act of vandalism.
Sarah Hutt, collections care manager for the Friends, said the sword has gone missing on seven other occasions since the summer of 2004, with each replacement costing the non-profit around $100.
“We are slowly trying to replace the swords and get replicas made when they are broken,” Hutt said.
With the frequent history of damage to the monument and in anticipation of further repairs, Hutt said the Friends commissioned Daedalus to cast six new swords at a total cost of $650 after the last incident.
Hutt believes damage to the sword sometimes occurs when passersby pull on it in an attempt to test the saber’s durability, but their motive remains a matter of speculation because the culprits have yet to leave a note behind. “This time the person left the pieces right there at the site, so we know they didn’t try to steal it,” she said.
Since the Friends aren’t permitted to put signage at the monument instructing people not to touch the sword, Hutt anticipates it will continue to sustain damage or occasionally go missing. Ironically, though, this destruction always results in a tremendous outpouring of support from the community.
“Whenever the sword is broken and replaced, I’m always surprised by how many people come out and are upset about it,” Hutt said. “There is a real range of age difference of people…and it’s really a community experience.”
Regarded as one most acclaimed pieces of sculpture on the Common, the Shaw Memorial is an official Boston African-American National Historic Site, as well as the first stop on the Boston African American National Historic Trail.
The “high-relief” bronze monument was crafted by the renowned American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and unveiled in 1897. It depicts Col. Shaw, a Union Army soldier during the Civil War, riding on horseback alongside his men down Beacon Street and past the State House on May 28, 1863, en route to South Carolina. He and 272 of his troops were killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, S.C., less than two months later on July 18, 1863.