The Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial is now off site as it undergoes a $2.8 million facelift, but the story of the first Northern black volunteer infantry unit enlisted to fight in the Civil continues to reach new audiences in its absence via 900 feet of interpretative signage that now lines the fencing along the project site on the Boston Common.
“We have these monuments in the parks, but no one knows what they are, and that goes for the Shaw 54th,” said Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, who describes the installation that will remain in place until the project’s completion later this year as “an exhibit without walls.” “It’s a really important story, especially in this moment,” she added.
The nonprofit Friends group has partnered with the City of Boston, the National Park Service and the Museum of African American History to restore the bas-relief memorial that sits inside the Common on the corner of Beacon and Park streets, and was created by American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and installed in 1897. The interpretive signage that now cordons the project site tells the story from the signing of the Emancipation Project, to the inception of the 54th Regiment, until the present restoration of the monument, and incorporates quotes from abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; a map that shows the site along the Nation Park Service’s “Boston’s Trails of Freedom” and the Black Heritage Trail; and a full-scale image of how the restored memorial will appear upon its unveiling later this year.
“People who lead tours and want to experience the memorial can see it,” Vizza said of the image. “With the high resolution way it was produced, it’s the best possible photo expression of the monument…and the information is out there, too, so tours, school groups and passersby can still learn the story of 54th Regiment while the statue is being restored.” Vizza added, “It’s a great moment to teach the public about the importance of the artwork, and as the monument comes back, more people will be educated and informed around the story.”
On May 28, 1863, the 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white soldiers from the 54th gathered on the Common before marching down Beacon Street past well-wishers, including Douglass. That evening, the 54th boarded a steamship to South Carolina, and six days later, they landed in Hilton Head, S.C., where Tubman, who escaped slavery to become the most celebrated “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, served them breakfast. The 54th went on to fight in the Battle of Grimball’s Landing on July 16, 1863 in Charleston, S.C., as well as the fateful Second Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. When the 54th and other Union regiments waged a frontal assault against Fort Wagner, they found themselves overwhelmingly outnumbered by Confederate soldiers. Shaw was fatally shot in the chest as he made his way over the fortress wall while 20 more of the 600 charging soldiers from the 54th were also killed, another 125 injured and 102 more reported missing (and presumed dead).
“The regiment began recruiting Black men from Canada, all along the east seaboard, and into the Caribbean,” Vizza said,” and if they got captured in the South, they would be killed or enslaved, so it was a big risk.” Ryan Woods, commissioner of the Boston Park Department, agreed that the signage is a valuable educational tool to tell the story of the 54th during the monument’s brief absence, and went on to call it “by far one of the greatest pieces of public art in the nation.”
“It’s a great moment to teach the public about the importance of the artwork and as the monument comes back, more people will be educated and informed around the story,” Woods said. Likewise, Leon Wilson, president and CEO of the Museum of African American History, wrote: “The interpretive signage was created with images from the Museum’s archives to share the individual faces of the 54th Regiment, just as Saint-Gaudins did with the sculpture’s bronze.
The imagery provides layers of context on the freemen and former slaves, their devotion to country, and commitment to freedom. We wanted to create something meaningful for our neighbors and the City of Boston. I believe we accomplished that, and then some. We are so proud to tell this story in this powerful and public way.”