Commissioned from the celebrated American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the early 1880s and dedicated in 1897, The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial (aka the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial) has been acclaimed as the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century. The memorial was designed by famed artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and it is a stop on the Boston Black Heritage Trail, commemorating the valiant efforts of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first Civil War regiments of African Americans enlisted in the North. In July 1863, the regiment was sent to South Carolina where an assault was planned on Fort Wagner guarding Charleston harbor. Shaw had asked to have 54th Regiment lead the attack. Of the 600 men in the attack that day, there were 285 casualties, and Col. Shaw was killed, but the men never wavered in the battle and demonstrated great courage and determination. Following this display of valor, other black regiments were formed, and by the end of the war, 10% of the union army was made up of African American soldiers.
The monument in Boston shows the 25-year-old Shaw seated on his horse, with his regiment as it marched down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 to depart the city to fight in the South. The concept of Shaw on horseback with marching soldiers was inspired, at least in part, from a painting Saint-Gaudens saw in France, Campagne de France 1814, by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, which depicts Napoleon on horseback with rows of infantry in the background.While Shaw is the centerpiece of the monument, the significance of the monument is the Shaw Memorial is the first civic monument to pay homage to the heroism of African American soldiers in the U.S.
Born into the heart of Boston Brahmin society (Boston’s elite class), Robert Gould Shaw II (1872-1930) had a life of great opportunity, but full of tragedy. Robert was born in Boston and was a first cousin of Robert Gould Shaw, the famed military officer who accepted command of the first all-Black regiment (the 54th Massachusetts) in the Northeast. Robert II had a life of leisure, and enjoyed his position in society by drinking and enjoying elite sporting events. He became a wealthy landowner around Boston, and international polo player of the Myopia Hunt Club in the North Shore. He gained a reputation for alcohol abuse and promiscuity and divorced his first wife after just four years, she would later move to England and marry Waldorf Astor, and become the first woman seated as a Member of Parliament. The couple’s only son Robert Gould Shaw III followed his mother to England, but was eventually imprisoned there for six months for “homosexual offenses”. His alcoholism and his mother’s death, may have led to his suicide in 1970. Robert Gould II in Boston, remarried and purchased land in Oak Hill, Newton to build a country estate. He hired James Lovell Little Jr. to design the Tudor style property with a mansion, and various outbuildings including a carriage house and stable. As the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era and eventually the Great Depression, the Shaw fortune collapsed. Shaw died in New York in 1930. The estate was later purchased as the new home to Mt. Ida College, now a regional campus of UMass.
As another piece of this interesting family’s history… Louis Agassiz Shaw II, one of Robert’s four children in his second marriage, had all the opportunities of his father, as he attended Harvard, had a sizable bank account, but was a recluse and had some mental issues and paranoia. Like his elder half-brother Robert Gould Shaw III, and father, Louis struggled with depression and alcoholism and in 1964, he strangled his 64-year-old maid, who he said was plotting to murder him in his sleep. He confessed but plead not guilty; he was committed to Danvers State Hospital and later McLean, where he lived for 23 years until his death. After which, much of his art collection, which he intended to donate to the Fogg Museum at Harvard, was discovered to be fakes.
One of my favorite buildings in Downtown Boston is the Richards Building on State Street for its rare and lavish cast-iron facade. Built in about 1859, the building was developed by Quincy A. Shaw and Gardiner H. Shaw (uncles of Robert Gould Shaw, who led the famed African American regiment that is the subject of St. Gaudens’ and Charles McKim’s Boston Common monument), merchants who then leased out commercial space in the building. The architect of the building is unknown; however, the sheet metal was supplied by E.B. Badger & Sons. The original design was a five-story, eight-bay cast iron front structure, in the Northern Italian mode of the Renaissance Revival style. The facade is only a screen attached to the front of the building. It is made of pieces of cast iron that were fabricated in Italy and bolted together in Boston. In 1889, the building was sold to Calvin A. Richards, a wealthy street railway tycoon and it is presumed that the two upper stories and corner oriels were added at that time. The building features one of a handful of extant cast-iron facades in Boston, which was restored in the 1980s.