by Justin O. Smith
One of the greatest pieces to come out of the Civil War, a great piece of public art dedicated 123 years ago on May 31st, the monument to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was defaced and vandalized on May 31st 2020, by ignorant masses who did so in the name of George Floyd, killed in a police brutality incident on May 25th. How ironic this vile act was, in light of the fact that this monument commemorates black lives dedicated and sacrificed to the fight to end slavery in America.
Standing atop a hill on the Boston Common, the memorial is explained by The Partnership to Renew the Shaw 54th Regimental Memorial: “The most acclaimed piece of sculpture on the Boston Common is the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens: a memorial to that group of men who were among the first African Americans to fight in the Civil War. The monument portrays Shaw and his men marching down Beacon Street past the State House on May 28, 1863 as they left Boston on their way to South Carolina. Shaw erect on his horse, the men marching alongside.”
This monument to the men of 54th Massachusetts Regiment stands across from the Massachusetts State House. It is under the care of the City of Boston, which also owns it, the National Park Service and the Museum of African American History. It is the first stop on the Black Heritage Trail.
Noting how painful it was to see this monument, and other monuments she loves, vandalized in so egregious a manner, purportedly by people exerting their “free speech” rights, Liz Vizza, executive director of Friends of the Public Garden, poignantly expressed the crux of the matter: “A thousand men signed up just after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, just think about that. These are men who, if they were captured in the south, would be enslaved or murdered. But this cause was so important to them, they signed up to go fight for their freedom.”
These men lived and breathed as Free Men finally. They fought a major battle at Ft Wagner, where many of them died and were subsequently buried in a mass grave. This sculpture celebrates men of color, and those who committed this vile act didn’t lessen their sacrifices. They merely cheapened and dishonored their own lives, no matter the color of their skin.