Beacon Hill Has Been the Scene of Great Events, but the March of the 54th May Be the Greatest of All

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One hundred and fourteen years ago today, on May 31, 1897, a monument now considered among the greatest pieces of public art in the world was dedicated in Boston. It is a work of profound depth, force and historical significance, and it sits precariously close to the traffic at the corner of Park and Beacon Streets, facing the Massachusetts State House:

Augustus Saint-Gaudens's memorial in bronze to the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the young Boston Brahmin who commanded it during the Civil War, Robert Gould Shaw -- or "the Shaw Memorial," as it is known for short.

If you've never seen it up close, you have missed an opportunity to experience in your heart and marrow what the Civil War was about: the struggle to end slavery and confer equality on millions of exploited and forsaken African-Americans.

Go see it tomorrow. Cancel an appointment. Skip your lunch, if you have to. It's that good.

In the Shaw Memorial, Saint-Gaudens recreated the occasion on May 23, 1863, when Colonel Shaw, on horseback, led his men on a march through the city to the ships that would take them to battlefields in the south.

As they were that day, the soldiers in the monument are facing west on Beacon Street, solemn and resolute. They seem to be leaning forward, eager for the fight.

It is said that the largest crowd in Boston history up to that time gathered to see the 54th off. Governor John Andrew and the members of the Massachusetts legislature were on the steps of the State House as they passed by. All along Beacon Street, residents came to their windows, doors and balconies to applaud, salute and urge them on with Godspeed.

Colonel Shaw paused briefly at 44 Beacon, his stately home, to acknowledge his parents and his new wife, whom he had married only three weeks previously. They would never see their son and husband again.

After you take a good look at the Shaw Memorial, I strongly recommend that you arrange to go on a tour of the Black Heritage Trail on Beacon Hill sometime this summer. The free tours are offered by the National Park Service, in conjunction with Boston's Museum of African-American History, and they start at the Shaw Memorial.

If you are lucky, you will happen to have as your tour guide that day one Dana Smith, a resident of Beacon Hill and teacher at St. John's Preparatory School in Danvers. He's dangerously good at this sort of thing.

There are many good Park Service guides who can open your eyes to the remarkable (and mostly overlooked) history of African-Americans in Boston and of the abolitionist hotbed that was our capital city in the mid-19th century, but I especially prize Mr. Smith for his passion and eloquence on these topics. He describes, for instance, the march of the 54th on May 23, 1863, in words so scalding and terms so dramatic that you will never forget what happened that day on Beacon Street, where Saint-Gaudens's masterpiece, fourteen years in the making, now presides in quiet majesty.

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