Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

A memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment on the edge of Boston Common commemorating the first black regiment to serve in the Civil War

As a son of the South I have a particular attachment to all matters pertaining to the American Civil War or, as it was referred to when I was a child, the Late Unpleasantness. There were some other more derogatory terms used to describe the war, but that is to be expected when your side is describing its own losing effort.

All that said, I’m an American first and a Southerner second. Truth be told I’m a child of God first and everything falls somewhere well behind. But, this is a photography blog and I’m getting to my point, so let’s move on now…

In addition to being a bit of a Civil War buff, my favorite type of literature is history. I love to hear the full details of historical accounts. Those details – even if imagined but informed – help me establish context. And context is very, very important to me.

So, when I first saw this memorial in Boston many years ago, I took it for the northern equivalent of a southern staple, the Civil War veteran being honored for his service. Only after watching the movie Glory and visiting the monument for a second time did I realize that this memorial is actually very special. For the people represented in this memorial are not your typical Civil War veterans. In fact, if this memorial were a painting it’s significance would be instantly obvious. But, since the memorial is cast in bronze, it’s not so easy to notice that the soldiers on foot are black and the officer on horseback is white.

In the movie, Edward Zwick does a masterful job telling the story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all-black regiment in the Civil War. Given that a central theme of the war was slavery and that Shaw was an abolitionist, the story of him training and leading a black regiment into battle is powerful. The actors portraying the black regiment (Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman among many other excellent African-American actors) only add to the visceral emotional reaction that the viewer gains knowing that these freed black men fight not only for their lives and their country but also for their race.

I still remember being emotionally wrung out after watching the movie and its powerful climax. I feel confident that you will have the same reaction if you’ve never had the privilege to watch the film. Hopefully this simple image will be the impetus for you to do so. Enjoy.

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