His Bravery and Theirs
A new exhibit celebrates Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts.
29 November 2013
The Latin inscription on Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s 1897 monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the African-American 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment reads: “He relinquished everything to serve the Republic.” In 1960, when America was attempting to make good on the “new birth of freedom” promised by the end of the Civil War nearly a century earlier, poet Robert Lowell altered one key word in his Latin epigraph to “For the Union Dead,” his meditation on the 54th: “They relinquished everything to serve the republic.” A small but stirring new exhibit at Washington’s National Gallery of Art proves that time has diminished neither the memorial’s visual power nor the symbolism of the 54th’s heroic story. “Tell it with Pride,” which runs until January 2014, is part testament to the brilliance of Saint-Gaudens and part tribute to the glory of his subject. Exhibits that uplift the spirit and swell the heart are rare. This one does both.
The curators have divided the show into two connected spaces in the Gallery’s West Building. The far room, with an emphasis on Saint-Gaudens, features a gilded plaster cast of the Shaw memorial, on long-term loan to the gallery, and several of the artist’s preliminary studies. The cast, once used for traveling exhibits, was actually Saint-Gaudens’s fourth rendering of the memorial. The colonel’s family rejected the original design, featuring Shaw without his men; the second, more familiar likeness, was unveiled on Boston Common in 1897. Saint-Gaudens, not fully satisfied with that version either, continued to tinker with the design. The vigorous equestrian portrait of Shaw—itself an heir to Verrocchio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni and Donatello’s horseback sculpture of Erasmo di Neri, or “Gattamelta”—endured through these various iterations.
But Saint-Gaudens’s triumph was the inclusion of the regiment, surrounding their leader’s horse, pressing forward, coming in and out of the relief. This composition was inspired by a photograph of Jean Louis-Ernest Meissonier’s painting of Napoleon and his infantry, Campagne de France 1814. Close examination reveals Saint-Gaudens’s remarkable skill and sensitivity: no two soldiers share the same face or features. They are young and old. Their boots, buttons, swinging canteens, ragged uniforms, rolled sleeping bags, and even the company’s eagle-crested drum are executed with such detail that it’s almost inconceivable they were created by the artist’s hands and tools, rather than taken from actual molds. A somber angel hovers overhead, clenching poppies and an olive branch. The poppies suggest the doom awaiting the men below, while the olive branch symbolizes the Union victory that many, including Abraham Lincoln, argued the valor of the 54th made possible.
The story of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachussetts, chronicled in the 1989 motion picture Glory, is likely familiar to many Americans. Less well-known are the men who created, championed, and served in the 54th. The second room of the exhibit gathers photos, documents, and artifacts, connecting flesh and blood to Saint-Gaudens’s plaster and bronze. Notable among these is Matthew Brady’s photo of Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew, an outspoken advocate of enlisting black soldiers. The 54th was Andrews’s brainchild, and he selected Shaw as its leader. Also present are the more familiar faces of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, both instrumental in recruiting and promoting the regiment, in which two of Douglass’s sons served. But it is the photos of the veterans of the 54th—their names little known to history—which are most remarkable.
Once an African-American took the battlefield, Douglass predicted, there would be “no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” Here we see the brass letters “U.S.” on their uniforms, the eagles on their buttons, and the muskets on their shoulders that the famed abolitionist reasoned would signify citizenship. Sergeant Major John Wilson sits in uniform, legs crossed, holding his cap, the number 54 on display. Private Alexander Johnson, the regiment’s 16-year-old drummer and Shaw’s messenger, poses bashfully. Most striking of all is a photograph of Sergeant William H. Carney. When the regiment’s flag bearer fell during the siege of Fort Wagner, it was Carney who grabbed the Stars and Stripes and charged alongside Shaw. For this, he became the first African-American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He did not, however, receive the actual award until 1900. For the occasion, Carney, now gray and aged, sat for a Massachusetts photographer. The medal hangs prominently from his three-piece suit as he flashes the ghost of a smile.
Rounding out the exhibit are other fascinating objects, including one of Shaw’s swords, a recruitment poster, a roster of every man who served in the regiment, and photographs and paintings of Fort Wagner and the 54th’s assault. These items, Saint-Gaudens’s masterwork, and the images of soldiers proudly displaying the colors of a country where they were either former slaves or, because of the color of their skin, second-class citizens, not only validate Douglass’s prophecy; they also provide an honest testament to the service, bravery, and patriotism of African-Americans throughout our history. The tenor of the exhibit stands in quiet contrast to the grandstanding, self-promotion, and partisanship that accompanied the 50th-anniversary commemorations of the March on Washington earlier this year.
Just as Lowell gently altered Saint-Gaudens’s inscription, “Tell it With Pride” offers opportunity for other amendments: Hidden away among its treasures is a melancholy letter to Shaw’s family transmitting the news of the colonel’s death, from which the show draws its name. The note concludes, “Neither Greece nor Rome can excel his heroism.” Nor theirs.next>>