The most acclaimed piece of sculpture on Boston Common is the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens; a memorial to that group of soldiers who were among the first African Americans to fight in the Civil War. The monument portrays Shaw and his soldiers marching down Beacon Street past the State House on May 28, 1863 as they left Boston on their way to South Carolina; Shaw erect on his horse, the soldiers marching alongside.

Shaw and his regiment were among the units chosen to lead the assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner, part of the Charleston defenses. In the face of fierce Confederate fire, Shaw led his soldiers into battle by shouting, “Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!”. In brutal hand-to-hand combat, Shaw was shot through the chest and died almost instantly; 281 members of his soldiers (almost half of the regiment) were killed, wounded, or captured.

Explore More: Service of the 54th Gallery

Service of the 54th

surviving 54th members in front of the memorial
Massachusetts Historical Society

Soon after the tragic events at Fort Wagner, on July 18, 1863, the survivors of the first all volunteer Black regiment in the Union Army raised funds for a memorial on Morris Island, South Carolina, but it was never built. In 1865 Joshua B. Smith, an African-American businessman and Massachusetts state senator, once an employee of the Shaw family, raised funds with the Black Beacon Hill community and led the first movement to erect a monument to Colonel Shaw in Boston. An executive committee was formed, intending “not only to mark the public gratitude to the fallen hero, who at a critical moment assumed a perilous responsibility, but also to commemorate the great event, wherein he was a leader, by which the title of colored men as citizen soldiers was fixed beyond recall.”

With the deaths of Governor Andrew and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the chief political supporters of the memorial effort, the project languished until the early 1880s. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose newly completed Farragut Monument in New York City had received great praise, was then introduced to the executive committee members by the well-established Boston architect H. H. Richardson. Saint-Gaudens was one of the premier artists of his day; he grew up in New York and Boston, and trained in Paris. The sculptor began work immediately on a design. By the end of 1883 he had produced numerous drawings and several small models of the proposed relief. The committee approved and a contract was signed on February 23, 1884, specifying a modest bronze relief to be completed in two years. Richardson was the original choice as architect for the project, but he died and was succeeded by Charles McKim, of the noted New York firm of McKim, Mead and White, who designed the frame and the terrace. The committee originally had proposed a free-standing equestrian statue, but Shaw’s family believed that type of monument should be reserved for heroes of a higher military rank than their young son. Saint-Gaudens, accordingly, “fell upon the plan of associating him directly with his troops in a bas-relief, and thereby reducing his importance.”

Explore More: Making of the Monument Gallery

Making of the Memorial

plaster relief of man on horse in front of marching soldiers
Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park

The commissioners became increasingly restless as Saint-Gaudens completed numerous other projects while the Shaw remained unfinished. The committee became very impatient, and threatened to fire Saint-Gaudens and hire sculptor Daniel Chester French. Saint-Gaudens continued work on the memorial. He had African American men pose in his studio, and modeled 40 different heads to use as studies. His concern for accuracy also extended to the clothing and accoutrements. This is the first time African American people were depicted as individuals, not stereotypes, and the first piece of sculpture to memorialize Black men. It shows the young Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, known to Saint-Gaudens through photographs, astride his horse with an absolutely erect posture with the men of the 54th marching alongside. It took Saint-Gaudens fourteen years to complete the memorial, but its greatness was recognized immediately. What started as a conventional relief eventually grew into an artistically challenging project of immense psychological and physical proportions. The sculptor later explained,

“In justice to myself I must say here that from the low-relief I proposed making when I undertook the Shaw commission, a relief that reasonably could be finished for the limited sum at the command of the committee, I, through my extreme interest in it and its opportunity, increased the conception until the rider grew almost to a statue in the round and the negroes assumed far more importance than I had originally intended…thus, the memorial continued to evolve for another twelve years.”
—Augustus Saint-Gaudens

In the memorial’s background, Shaw’s father suggested using the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization formed after the Revolutionary War for officers and their descendants, and of which Robert Gould Shaw was a hereditary member. The motto, OMNIA RELINQVIT SERVARE REMPVBLICAM (He forsook all to preserve the public weal), was used. Among other symbolic details are 34 stars along the top, representing the states of the Union in 1863. The 11 x 14 foot bronze bas-relief was cast by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, and placed in an architectural setting designed by Charles McKim.

The Shaw MA 54th Memorial remains one of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ most stirring and celebrated masterpieces and is considered by some to be America’s greatest public monument. Private funds built this monument, presented to the City of Boston on May 31, 1897 as a reminder to future generations of the “pride, courage and devotion” of the men it honors. The Friends of the Public Garden raised funds to restore and endow the monument in 1982 and memorialized the fallen soldiers by adding their names on the rear of the monument under Proverbs 10:7 “Memory of the Just is Blessed,” fulfilling an original request by the Shaw family.

Explore More: Legacy of the 54th Gallery

Legacy of the 54th

Other Resources

Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service) (

A Brave Black Regiment: The 54th Massachusetts – Boston African American National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service) (

See the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial featured in PBS: 10 Monuments That Changed America (at the 15:23 mark)