The marching wouldn’t be easy – federal law prohibited men of color from joining the army. Questions were raised – Wasn’t this a “white man’s” war? Would black troops prompt the Border States to secede? Finally, after twenty months of struggle, the Emancipation Proclamation decreed that African-American men could join the armed services. The black men were ready to march.
Governor Andrew of Massachusetts issued the call for a regiment of black soldiers. Two weeks later more than 1,000 men, from Massachusetts and New York, Indiana and Ohio, from slave states and the Caribbean had volunteered to serve. Fathers and sons enlisted together; Charles and Lewis Douglass, sons of Frederick Douglass, joined.
The Governor appointed Robert Gould Shaw, a young white officer, in command. Shaw had dropped out of Harvard to join the Union Army and had been injured in battle at Antietam. He was 25 years old.
On May 28th 1863, as spectators lined the streets, the 54th Massachusetts presented its colors and paraded through Boston. The regiment then departed for the coast of South Carolina.
The 54th Regiment landed at Hilton Head on June 3. The next week, they took part in a destructive raid on a town in Georgia. Shaw was furious: his troops had come south to fight for freedom and justice, not to destroy undefended towns. He wrote to General Strong and asked that the 54th might lead the next Union charge on the battlefield.
On July 16, the regiment saw action on James Island, losing forty-five men.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts prepared to storm Fort Wagner which guarded the Port of Charleston. At dusk, Shaw gathered his men on a strip of sand outside Wagner’s walls. “I want you to prove yourselves,” he said. “The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”
As night fell, Shaw led his men over the walls of the fort. 1,700 Confederate soldiers waited inside, ready for battle. Two hundred and eighty one of the 600 charging soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Shaw was shot in the chest leading the charge over the wall and died instantly.
The Confederates dumped the bodies in an unmarked trench and cabled Union leaders: “we have buried Shaw with his niggers.” Shaw’s parents replied that there could be “no holier place” to be buried than “surrounded by…brave and devoted soldiers.”
It took Augustus Saint-Gaudens 14 years to complete his memorial depicting Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The soldiers march across a bronze frieze while an angel, holding an olive branch and a bouquet of poppies, floats above.
On Memorial Day 1897, the monument was unveiled on Boston Common, as 65 veterans of the 54th Regiment marched in to the same spot where they had marched off to war 34 years before, and laid a large wreath of Lilies of the Valley.
Saint-Gaudens watched, deeply moved:
“Many of them were bent and crippled, many with white heads, some with bouquets… They seemed as if returning from the war, the troops of bronze marching in the opposite direction, the direction in which they had left for the front, and the young men there represented now showing these veterans the vigor and hope of youth. It was a consecration.”