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Memorial Day '21: Honoring ancestry, continuing allyship through Shaw 54th MA Memorial restoration

Today on Memorial Day 2021, my twin sister Sherry and I, as descendants of the Nye family, are proud to begin our support of the Shaw 54th Massachusetts Memorial Restoration Project in honor of the fallen Union officers and soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (the North's first African-American regiment of the Civil War and the first to engage in a major US military campaign, the Battle of Fort Wagner) and our ancestry's abolitionist legacy in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The newly restored monument was unveiled to the public on Friday in time for Memorial Day weekend and the anniversary of its dedication 124 years ago on Memorial Day 1897. Our donations will go towards its official rededication ceremony in October.

The bronze high-relief sculpture, created over a period of 14 years by American artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is considered one of the greatest achievements of public art in the United States, and the first known to acknowledge the military contributions of African Americans. It is located in Boston's historic Beacon Hill neighborhood, what was the national epicenter of the 19th-century abolitionist movement, designated in October 1980 as the Boston African American National Historic Site by the National Park Service.

The monument portrays Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry's historic march through Beacon Street May 28, 1863 prior to their departure for South Carolina. Located on Beacon Street and the Boston Common, the artwork rests on the very spot where the parade, and the 54th's journey to the front, began that fateful morning.

The 54th marches into History

Below: Watch Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (featuring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher, Jihmi Kennedy) parade through Beacon Street. Director Edward Zwick's interpretation of the 54th's valor and sacrifice in the film Glory (1989, Tri-Star Pictures) won three Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Sound and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Denzel Washington). Musically, the moment begins with "Hoist Up the Flag" (B. Holmes, S. Winner, 1863) and transitions into the main theme of James Horner's moving film score.

The Shaw 54th Memorial was dedicated 124 years ago today on Memorial Day 1897 and included a procession by veterans of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

What was it like to be there that day? The National Park Service offers an account:

On May 31, 1897, the day of the unveiling, the weather was overcast with a light, misty rain. In spite of this, there was a festive feeling and spectators lined the streets. Two large American flags covered the sculpture. At 11:17 a.m., at a signal, two young nephews of Robert Gould Shaw, unveiled the memorial. The crowd cheered, a band struck up "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and an artillery battery on the Boston Common fired a 17-gun salute. Simultaneously, three warships in the harbor each fired a 21-gun salute.
The military units present began to march past the memorial, led by 65 veterans of the 54th Massachusetts. Some of the officers wore their Civil War uniforms but most of the enlisted men were in their best frock coats. Black veterans from the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry were also present. Among the men of the 54th, Sergeant William Carney carried the American flag. The sight of him elicited cheers from the onlookers who knew of his exploits. The 54th veterans laid a large wreath of lilies of the valley before the monument.

Memorial Day 1897: Procession of 54th Massachusetts veterans at the memorial's dedication. (MA Historical Society)

Artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was also in attendance, later recalled of that moment...

"The impression of those old soldiers passing the very spot where they left for the war so many years before, thrills me even as I write these words. They faced and saluted the relief...They seemed as if returning from war, the troops of bronze marching in the opposite direction, the direction in which they had left for the front, and the young men there represented now showing these veterans the vigor and hope of youth. It was a consecration." -Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Photo by artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the 1897 dedication. (Saint-Gaudens Nat'l Historic Park Facebook May 31, 2021)

Be a "Witness to History" in person or virtually!

While those able to witness in-person the history of the memorial's unveiling this weekend have the opportunity to sign a physical guestbook and receive a commemorative pen (see below), there is also a "Witness to History" digital book option for the rest of us. Join me and others around the globe in paying tribute to the 54th and the return of their successfully restored memorial! Sign here.

We all have a connection to the 54th. What's yours?

On June 8, 2021, I received a kind letter from the Friends of the Public Garden confirming that my Memorial Day donation will go towards support for programs and events associated with the memorial's restoration, as requested. The formal rededication ceremony will be held in October.

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