Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Massachusetts 54th Regiment: In History, Visual and Performing Arts

My photo of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Last month when I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for the first time, I stood in front of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in admiration and remembrance.

I admired the actions of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first formal unit in the U.S. made up entirely of black men during the Civil War, and their leader, Col. Shaw, a 25-year-old son of Boston abolitionists.  I also admired the talent of sculptor Saint-Gaudens who was commissioned to create a Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, which took 14 years to make, unveiled on the Boston Common on Memorial Day, 1897. It is now a part of the Boston Black Heritage trail.  He also created a full-scale plaster version of the monument, previously kept at his home in Cornish, N. H., adjusted and housed at the National Gallery of Art since 1997.

The works of art commemorate the brave regiment who stormed Fort Wagner at the port of Charleston, S.C. July 18, 1863 (President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1, 1863). Though Shaw and one-third of his men were killed, their actions legitimized the idea of black men in the military and is also said to have helped secure the Union's ultimate victory.

Me on the steps of the National Gallery of Art in January.
Saint-Gaudens was a teen in New York City in 1863 when members of the regiment met their heroic fate.  Ironically, what I remembered standing in front his artwork was the first time I ever learned of the regiment as an early teen watching the film, "Glory."  

My father showed my brother sister and me the Academy Award-winning film by Edward Zwick during a Blockbuster Video night in our New York household in the early '90s.  I had no clue what it was about, just that the lead character, Matthew Broderick, from one of my favorite teenage angst films, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," had a role as did one of my mother's favorite actors, Denzel Washington and also Morgan Freeman, who I knew from watching "The Electric Company."

In "Glory" (1989), told from the perspective of Col. Shaw, played by Broderick, you take a look inside of the 54th Regiment.  From the performances -- Washington won the 1990 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his character, " Private Trip" -- to the significance of the story in American history, I was affected by the film.  I was so glad my parents let me see it.  I had a ton of questions for my American History teacher like, "Why am I just now hearing of this?” and I also started to read more about the men.

Both the Memorial to Captain Robert Gould Shaw and “Glory” are artistic interpretations of the bravery of Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.  It’s always interesting to recognize how as a society we use our talents to process history.  Through literature, the visual arts and performing arts the efforts of these men will never be forgotten.

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