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Remembering Civil War Heroes on Boston's Black Heritage Trail

A bronze memorial to African American soldiers is a stirring stop in the historic city

Robert Gould Shaw monument

Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo

COVID-19 Update: The Museum of African American History continues to operate with limited hours, and timed-entry tickets must be purchased in advance.

In a city as rich with history as Boston, the constant deluge of busts, equestrian statues, fountains, national landmarks, obelisks, plaques and victory columns can have an almost numbing effect. With this much history, it's easy for even the most noteworthy pieces to get lost in the shuffle. Case in point: The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, a stately bronze relief on the northern edge of Boston Common.

Although widely considered one of the country's most stirring war monuments, this 1897 memorial is easily missed by the thousands who stream past it every day. But stop and take a closer look. This emotionally resonant masterpiece by Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a testament to a game-changing historical figure. More than that, it was the nation's first public monument to honor African American soldiers.

Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman "Glory" movie poster

AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The cast of "Glory"

Battle casualties

If you don't know Col. Shaw by name, you may know him by reputation: Matthew Broderick played “the blue-eyed child of fortune” in the 1989 Oscar-winning film Glory. Born to a prominent Boston family of abolitionists in 1837, Shaw, at the young age of 25, took command of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first all-Black regiments to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Unfortunately, he and more than half his regiment were shot and killed during the July 1863 Second Battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston. In a sign of disrespect for Shaw having led Black soldiers, the commanding Confederate general refused to return his body and instead had it buried in a mass grave alongside his men. But the general's move had the opposite effect: His family saw the burial as a great honor, and his father wrote, “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!"

After his death, veterans from the 54th Regiment proposed a monument to Shaw's memory near his burial site, but local citizens stopped it from being built. Instead, the funds raised for its construction went toward building Charleston's first free school for Black children in Shaw's name. Later, thanks to the efforts of African American businessman Joshua B. Smith (who had once worked for the Shaw family), a committee convened in Boston to plan for a proper memorial — a committee that included Charles Sumner, the senator famously beaten nearly to death by a pro-slavery representative after a fiery abolitionist speech.

To create the memorial, the committee commissioned Saint-Gaudens, who crafted some of the most gorgeous sculptures of the day, including “Abraham Lincoln: The Man” (1887) in Chicago's Lincoln Park. The sculptor drew inspiration from a French painting of Napoleon on horseback in front of rows of marching infantry men to depict a similar scene: Shaw and the 54th Regiment marching down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863, before shipping out to Charleston.

Ever a perfectionist, Saint-Gaudens took his time getting every detail right. “It took Saint-Gaudens nearly 14 years to complete the monument, much to the chagrin of the committee,” says Shawn P. Quigley, a park guide with the National Parks of Boston. “In fact, one committee member complained in 1894 that ‘that bronze is wanted pretty damned quick! People are grumbling for it, the city howling for it, and most of the committee have become toothless waiting for it!'"

Plan Your Trip

Location: Look for the Shaw memorial at the northeast corner of Boston Common, directly across from the Massachusetts State House, near the intersection of Beacon and Park streets

Getting there: The memorial is a two-minute walk from the MBTA's Park Street transit station, which serves the Red and Green Lines, and a five-minute walk from the Bowdoin station, which serves the Blue Line. If you're arriving by car, the Boston Common underground parking garage is a bit pricey ($12 for up to an hour on weekdays), with a slight discount for evenings and weekends.

Hours: The restored memorial is viewable 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but most of the other stops on the Black Heritage Trail (BHT) are now private residences you can only see from the outside. The exception is the Museum of African American History (MAAH), open Monday-Friday (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day), 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission: There's no fee to view the memorial; the only portion of the BHT that requires paid tickets is the MAAH ($10, free for those 62 and older).

Best season to visit: From Memorial Day through Labor Day, National Park Service rangers lead free BHT walking tours, departing from the memorial at 1 p.m. daily, with an additional tour at 10 a.m. from July Fourth through Labor Day.

Best time to visit: During summer, join the morning tour so you have ample time to explore the MAAH at trail's end.

Accessibility: The BHT is wheelchair accessible, but the 1.6-mile path involves occasional uneven sidewalks and steep hills. The MAAH is fully accessible for wheelchair users but has no wheelchairs available on-site.

Massive masterpiece

At 11 feet by 14 feet, the massive bronze relief depicts a row of lifelike soldiers marching with their bedrolls, canteens, drums and rifles, led by a stoic Shaw on horseback. An ethereal female allegorical figure floating above the gritty realism below carries an olive branch for peace and an armful of poppies, symbolizing death. Note that it wasn't until 1982 that the Friends of the Public Garden raised funds to restore the monument and finally inscribed the names of the fallen Black soldiers who died alongside Shaw.

"One thing I always like to call attention to are the individual faces of the soldiers,” says Quigley. “It's a masterpiece when you look at the entire monument, but the painstaking detail is where I think the genius of Saint-Gaudens really shines."

The sculptor hired men to pose for the monument, so that he could create individual soldiers rather than generic idealized figures. Quigley points out that some are old, others young, some have beards, others are barefaced. “Whenever I have folks on a tour, I always ask them to look at these individual faces and describe the emotions they see,” he continues. “I think it's important to point this out because, in 1897 when the monument is completed, the men captured in bronze by Saint-Gaudens are not the typical late-19th-century depiction of African Americans."

A trail of Black history

Today, the memorial is part of the Boston African American National Historic Site, a collection of pre-Civil War structures sprinkled throughout Beacon Hill and connected by the 1.6-mile Black Heritage Trail (BHT). Stops along the way — many now private residences you can only view from the outside — include the 1807 Charles Street Meeting House, a ormerly segregated church that went on to host speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth; the 1824 Phillips School, one of Boston’s first integrated schools; and the residences of abolitionists, Underground Railroad conductors and Black militia leaders.

At the end of the BHT, you’ll find the Museum of African American History (MAAH), which comprises two historic structures that are open to the public: the 1806 African Meeting House, the oldest Black church building still standing in America; and the 1835 Abiel Smith School, the first public school for free Black Bostonians. The church has been restored to its 1855 look, while the school now houses exhibits and a museum shop.

While the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial has stood for more than a century, it’s still very much a living part of Boston history. Last summer, when George Floyd protests ignited debates about the role of monuments, some in the city questioned the memorial’s continued relevance. Is it, for instance, perpetuating a white savior narrative? And why should the white officer be given such pride of place over his Black soldiers? “It’s important to look at the difference between Shaw on his horse and the men marching,” Quigley points out. “The memorial speaks to the fact that these men are fighting to end slavery but doing so in a regiment that is segregated.”

Friends of the Public Garden has just completed a $3 million restoration of the monument in partnership with the City of Boston, the MAAH and the National Park Service. As part of the overhaul, conservators spruced up the bronze relief in a studio in Woburn while stone conservators in nearby Lexington worked on the granite and marble base.

Over the years, the monument has inspired composer Charles Ives’ orchestral work “Three Places in New England” (1911-1914) and Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead” (1964), and appeared in the end credits of Glory. The restoration ensures that Robert Gould Shaw and, perhaps more importantly, the groundbreaking Black soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment will stand as beacons of hope and heroism for generations to come. 

Boston Massacre/Crispus Attucks Monument

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Boston Massacre/Crispus Attucks Monument

Nearby

After checking out the memorial, leave time to explore the rest of Boston Common and its other historic treasures. Since opening in 1634, America’s oldest city park has served as a pastoral retreat for Bostonians, and now it’s home to several monuments and memorials from the city’s first four centuries.

From the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, walk west past the Frog Pond to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, a 126-foot granite victory column dedicated to the Civil War dead. Then head south to the Boston Massacre/Crispus Attucks Monument, which features an allegorical female figure holding a broken chain and crushing the British crown with her foot. Look for the bronze relief plaque on the base, depicting a slain Crispus Attucks, the Black stevedore believed to be the first casualty of the American Revolution.

Continue west, crossing over Charles Street, to the Boston Public Garden to see monuments to abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips (designed by Lincoln Memorial sculptor Daniel Chester French) and Sen. Charles Sumner. Finish up at the garden’s most notable monument, the equestrian statue of George Washington by sculptor Thomas Ball, which looks out over the Arlington Street gate.

Farther Afield

If you’re a Civil War buff, take the 50-minute ferry ride to Fort Warren on Georges Island, one of the 34 islands dotting Boston Harbor. Accessible by ferry from either Long Wharf North or the Hingham Intermodal Center, the island usually welcomes visitors from mid-May to mid-October, but check its website to see how COVID-19 will impact this year’s reopening plan.

Built between 1833 and 1861, the isle’s stone and granite fort takes its name from Joseph Warren, who sent Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride. The Union Army used the fort as a training camp and a prison for Confederate soldiers and civilians, such as Vice President Alexander Stephens. If you’re lucky (or unlucky?), you may encounter the ghostly Lady in Black, a woman executed for trying to free her imprisoned Confederate soldier husband.


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Where to Stay

Splurge: Set in a 1903 Beaux-Arts building steps from the Shaw memorial, the 63-room XV Beacon brims with unique architectural details, such as an original caged elevator and a grand marble staircase. An impressive, eccentric art collection includes a fourth-century Roman mosaic and paintings by Presidential portraitist Gilbert Stuart. Rooms from $292.

Save: The Liberty, a Luxury Collection Hotel, occupies the imposing Charles Street Jail, with a cocktail lounge inside the old “drunk tank.” Completed in 1851, this building has housed many inmates tied to the struggle for racial equality, including Malcolm X and Civil Rights activist William Monroe Trotter. It's located just a few blocks north of the Black Heritage Trail, next to Massachusetts General Hospital. Rooms from $189

Where to Dine

Splurge: Set in a pre-Revolutionary building from 1714 and opened way back in 1826 — a decade before Robert Gould Shaw was born — Boston's oldest restaurant, Union Oyster House, may feel a bit touristy, but locals still love the clam chowder, raw oysters and broiled scrod (and it's not a huge splurge; go for lunch and get a fried oyster roll for about $20 or a bowl of its famed clam chowder for $10). JFK was such a regular that a plaque memorializes his favorite booth.

Save: Make the 10-minute drive north from Boston Common to Charlestown, a historic Boston neighborhood on the north bank of the Charles River, for a meal at Warren Tavern, Massachusetts’ oldest bar. Sharing a namesake with Fort Warren, the bar opened in 1780 in the shadow of Bunker Hill and became a favorite watering hole of Paul Revere, George Washington and other Revolutionary War heroes. It serves tasty New England–tinged fare; try the lobster roll or a Plymouth Plantation, a turkey-and-all-the-fixings sandwich.

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