April 20, 2010

A PROPER SUBJECT:

The Last Full Measure of Devotion (Allan Greenberg, Winter 2009, Claremont Review of Books)

Corporal James Henry Gooding of the 54th described Shaw's death for the New Bedford Mercury: "We were exposed to a murderous fire.... Col. Shaw seized the staff when the standard bearer fell, and in less than a minute after, the Colonel fell himself.... He was [stripped of his clothes and] buried in a trench with 45 of his men! Not even the commonest respect paid to his rank." The Shaw family, however, considered this intended ignominy an honor, and spurned all efforts to recover their son's body. Knowing that no other officer in the Civil War had been treated in this manner, Shaw's father, Francis George Shaw, wrote, "Since learning of the place of our dear dead son's burial, we would not remove his body if we could. We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company." Col. Shaw had left instructions that he was to be buried with his men, forgoing the officer's privilege of having his body shipped home.

Soon after the subsequent fall of Fort Wagner, on September 6, 1863, the men of the 54th Regiment raised funds toward a modest stone memorial to Shaw to be built nearby. Due to local hostility, the memorial was blocked and the money went instead to found the first free school for black children in Charleston. In 1865, Joshua Smith, a fugitive slave who had become a businessman in Boston, proposed a memorial to "commemorate the great event, wherein [Shaw] was a leader, by which the title of colored men as citizen-soldiers was fixed beyond recall." A committee was formed under Governor John Albion Andrew to commission an equestrian statue of Shaw.

The matter lapsed until 1882, when the architect H. H. Richardson, a friend of the Shaw family, presented sketches for a memorial to the Andrews committee and recommended that Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a young sculptor who had emigrated from Ireland to the United States as an infant, be awarded the commission. At the time, he was acclaimed for his remarkable statue in New York City of Admiral David Farragut.

Saint-Gaudens's first sketch simply showed Shaw astride a horse, but Shaw's family rejected it as inappropriate because their son had been an officer of the infantry who died leading a charge on foot. Heeding their criticism, the young sculptor decided to start over. Through discussions with Shaw's father, he attained a deeper understanding of the young colonel and the legacy of the 54th in legitimating the role of black soldiers in the military. Their conversations helped Saint-Gaudens identify the memorial's proper subject: Shaw on horseback riding next to his soldiers as they marched together to war. That was the basis of the sculptor's new maquette in April 1883, which was immediately accepted by the family.

Saint-Gaudens struggled for the next 13 years to give life to this vision. On the monument, Shaw is modeled in unusually high relief and rides alongside a group of 23 soldiers marching in ranks four deep. Every soldier's face is a distinct portrait; each figure is unique, with his own gait and posture, reinforced by variations in the position of legs, arms, packs, and rifles. Saint-Gaudens sculpted 40 portraits, from which he selected 16 for the memorial. Some of these soldiers had been slaves, men with no rights, classified as chattel. Shaw's father taught Saint-Gaudens that the recognition of each soldier's identity was central to understanding the reason his son rode to war. Saint-Gaudens's modeling was so successful that William James, who spoke at the monument's unveiling, felt he could hear the bronze figures breathe.


The St. Gaudens Historical Site opens on Memorial Day and is well worth the visit.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2010 6:26 AM
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