Object of the Month

“O fairhaired northern hero With thy guard of dusky hue”: proposed inscriptions for the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common

Draft inscriptions for the Shaw Memorial (letterbook copy) by Edward Atkinson, circa 24 June 1892

Draft inscriptions for the Shaw Memorial (letterbook copy) by Edward Atkinson, circa 24 June 1892

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  • Peter K. Steinberg
    Digital Projects Production Specialist

    In an excerpt from one of his letterbooks, Edward Atkinson, an economist, industrialist, insurance executive, and advocate for various social and political causes, recorded possible inscriptions for Augustus Saint-Gaudens's memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Atkinson served as treasurer for the memorial committee and recorded five potential inscriptions for the memorial (pages 1-3 of the sequence), although none were ultimately used. In addition, Atkinson records three poetical excerpts (page 4 of the sequence), and a typed page containing a now-famous quote by Governor John Albion Andrew, who authorized the formation of the 54th Regiment (page 5 of the sequence).

    The Best Intentions

    The Shaw Memorial commemorates Colonel Shaw and his men for their valor and sacrifices during the Civil War, most notably during the 18 July 1863 assault of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, the day on which Shaw died alongside many of his troops. In 1865, a committee of twenty-one was founded to raise funds for the memorial, an equestrian statue, with the stated intent of the memorial being

    . . . not only to mark the public gratitude to the fallen hero who at a critical moment assumed a perilous responsibility, but also to commemorate that great event wherein he was a leader by which the title of colored men as citizen soldiers was fixed beyond recall. In such a work all who honor youthful dedication to a noble cause and who rejoice in the triumph of freedom should have an opportunity to contribute.

    As treasurer, Atkinson kept track of the funds collected, investing and reinvesting them for more than two decades with respectable return. However, between 1865 and 1884 little else was done. The committee suffered setbacks with the deaths of two significant committee members, former governor John Albion Andrew, who served as chairman, and Senator Charles Sumner. It was not until 1883, when their funds exceeded $16,000, that Atkinson and the others stepped up their efforts to have the memorial actualized. At the recommendation of architect Henry H. Richardson, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was chosen to create the monument, in part based on his 1880 statue of Civil War hero Admiral David G. Farragut in New York City. Saint-Gaudens spent twelve years on the Shaw memorial, which was completed and unveiled on 31 May 1897.

    Placing Memory

    The memorial has two main inscriptions on the face of the pedestal, the first of which reads:

    ROBERT GOULD SHAW
    COLONEL OF THE FIFTY-FOURTH REGIMENT OF MASSACHUSETTS
    INFANTRY BORN IN BOSTON OCTOBER X MDCCCXXXVII
    KILLED WHILE LEADING THE ASSAULT ON FORT WAGNER
    SOUTH CAROLINA JULY XVIII MDCCCLXIII

    The draft inscriptions in Atkinson’s letterbooks are probably suggestions from committee members. Stephen T. Riley, the former librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, wrote that, not too surprisingly, "a wide variance of opinion existed as to what was fitting" for the monument. The drafts of quotes and excerpts are from Anna Waterston's poem "Together," which along with Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Voluntaries" was favored by John Murray Forbes; Elizabeth B. Sedgwick's poem "Buried with his Niggers"; and an extract from a conversation Shaw had with Lieutenant Colonel Edward Needles Hallowell.

    Ultimately, the second inscription chosen for the monument was a stanza of verse from James Russell Lowell's 1863 poem "Memoriæ Positum," championed by committee member Henry Lee. Although inspired by Shaw's death, the poem was not written specifically for the memorial.

    Right in the van,
    On the red rampart's slippery swell,
    With heart that beat a charge, he fell
    Foeward, as fits a man,
    But the high soul burns on to light men's feet
    Where death for noble ends makes dying sweet . . .

    The Unveiling

    The Shaw Monument was unveiled on 31 May 1897, on what was then called Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day. The ceremony and unveiling--which consisted of a parade, speeches, and music--was considered "particularly sacred" and "a patriotic occasion" by a Boston Globe reporter. In addition to Edward Atkinson and acting chairman of the committee Henry Lee, among those present at the dedication were veterans of the Massachusetts 54th and other regiments who fought in the Civil War, as well as Colonel Norwood Penrose Hallowell, Booker T. Washington, William James, and Governor Roger Wolcott. The MHS holds an albumen print capturing the ceremony that was used in the Boston Journal which shows a bearded man (possibly Edward Atkinson) tipping his hat towards the memorial and lines of participants stretching down Beacon Street. In addition, the Society holds an 1897 photomechanical print signed by Saint-Gaudens. Whether the timing was coincidental or not, the Shaw memorial was publicly unveiled just over thirty-four years after he marched past the State House with his troops on 28 May 1863, on his way to the steamer for South Carolina.

    Post Script: Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam

    James Russell Lowell's great-great-grandson, poet Robert Lowell, penned the following lines nearly a century after Shaw's brave death in his 1960 poem "For the Union Dead":

    Their monument sticks like a fishbone
    in the city's throat.
    Its Colonel is as lean
    as a compass-needle.

    He has an angry wren like vigilance,
    a greyhound's gentle tautness;
    he seems to wince at pleasure,
    and suffocate for privacy.

    "For the Union Dead" deals with Boston’s changing landscape--the disappearance of landmarks and the excavation of Boston Common for a parking garage. Memory and the Shaw Memorial are "shaking" from the civic activity, “propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.” Lowell contrasts the Shaw memorial to the lack of remembrance in Boston for World War II, marked only by “a commercial photograph / shows Hiroshima boiling / over a Mosler Safe, / the ‘Rock of Ages’ that survived the blast.”

    "For the Union Dead" served as title poem to Lowell's 1964 volume of poems For the Union Dead, the cover of which featured a drawing of the Shaw Memorial by Francis Parker. (See the cover here.)

    Tell It with Pride: now on view at the Massachusetts Historical Society

    Through 23 May 2014, the Massachusetts Historical Society is featuring Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, an exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The exhibition features photographs, documents, and artifacts loaned to the National Gallery for their 2013 landmark exhibition, together with photographs and documents from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collections, including materials gathered by Captain Luis F. Emilio for his History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (“A Brave Black Regiment”). Emilio drew upon several of the same quotations proposed as inscriptions for the Shaw Memorial for the introduction to his history. The exhibition also includes additional Emilio manuscripts and artifacts recently acquired by the Historical Society. Exhibition galleries are open to the public without charge from 10 to 4, Monday through Saturday.

    Sources for Further Reading

    Anderson, Nancy K. “For All Time to Come: Memorializing Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment.” Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2013, p. 80-93.

    Atkinson, Edward. Edward Atkinson papers, 1819-1920.

    The Edward Atkinson papers contains loose and letterbook correspondence, his own writings, a memoir, financial ledgers, and printed materials.

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Voluntaries." The Atlantic Monthly. October 1863, p. 504-506.

    "Heroic Deed and Noble Cause Immortalized in Bronze." The Boston Globe. 1 June 1897, p. 1, 7.

    Emilio, Luis F. History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (“A Brave Black Regiment”), 2nd enlarged edition, Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894.

    “54th Regiment!” The Massachusetts Historical Society’s online exhibition of photographic portraits, recruiting posters, and other images that illustrate the service of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

    Higginson, Thomas Wentworth . "The Shaw Memorial and the Sculptor St. Gaudens". Century Magazine 32, No. 54 (1897), p. 176-200.

    Hope & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Marty Blatt, Thomas J. Brown and Donald Yacovone, eds. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press in Association with the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2001.

    Lowell, James Russell. "Memoriæ Positum." The Atlantic Monthly. January 1864, p. 88- 90.

    Lowell, Robert. For the Union Dead. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964.

    Riley, Stephen T. "A Monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 75 (1963), p. 27-38.


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