WOBURN — One of America’s greatest works of public art lies on its side in a dusty sculpture studio here, surrounded by busts, statues, and clay molds of US presidents, Roman gods, classical poets, and explorers from long ago.
The artwork is the famed bronze memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first Union regiments of Black soldiers to see major combat in the Civil War. Dedicated in 1897 opposite the State House, the masterpiece of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens had been badly tarnished and dangerously corroded by weather and age.
Now, in the only studio of its kind in Greater Boston, the bronze renderings of those soldiers and Shaw are being painstakingly stripped, cleaned, and restored. Robert Shure, a sculptor and owner of Skylight Studios, described the work as a high honor, not a job.
“The whole thing appeals to your soul,” Shure said, gazing at the faces of the marching Black infantrymen. “It’s the emotional quality of it. You can see the intensity in the men.”
The $3 million project, which includes stonework restoration in Lenox, is expected to be completed by the end of November. Until then, Shure and a few craftsmen are marveling at the life that Saint-Gaudens brought to the work, which took him 14 years to finish.
Shure points to the soldiers, each distinct and individual, molded in the likenesses of Black models Saint-Gaudens brought to his studio. There is the finely detailed horse carrying Shaw, the regiment’s white commander from a family of prominent Boston abolitionists. And there are more Black soldiers, normally obscured by Shaw’s horse, who now are visible only because the sculpture is on its side.
“He didn’t have to do anything back there,” Shure said of the hidden troops. “Why did he? Because he’s a great master.”
At a time when the meaning of public statues and monuments is being reassessed — and those statues sometimes torn down, as tributes to Confederate generals and leaders have been — the Shaw memorial is considered an enduring national treasure, one that brings renewed relevance to today’s questions of racial justice.
“It speaks to a time when slavery and oppression and denial of the prowess of Black people were alive and legal in America,” said L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation at the Museum of African American History, based in Boston and Nantucket.
“The honor and bravery and gallantry that was there is what we celebrate now,” Frazier said. “And while it is a wonderful rendering of the moment, it is also pregnant with the challenges that racism produces.”
There is Shaw displayed prominently, the white leader of a regiment with no commissioned Black officers. From the monument’s dedication in 1897 until 1982, the names of the Black soldiers who died with Shaw in the July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, S.C., were not engraved on its stonework.
Roughly 40 percent of the 600-man regiment were killed, wounded, or missing in that unsuccessful frontal attack on the fort, a vital defense for Charleston Harbor.
Shaw was among those killed, and many of the missing Black soldiers undoubtedly were summarily executed by Confederate soldiers who were incensed at the prospect of fighting Black infantry.
When the project was proposed, Saint-Gaudens had been asked to sculpt a lone equestrian figure of Shaw. But the colonel’s family insisted he be shown with the regiment, marching off to war past the same spot where they would have been cheered in 1863.
The creation of the 54th Regiment, as well as the monument, were pushed forward by free Black citizens in Boston, who used their contacts across the country to spur recruitment after Governor John Andrew secured permission from the federal government to raise the unit.
Two sons of Frederick Douglass, the famed Black abolitionist, were among the first to enlist in the regiment, which trained at Camp Meigs in the Readville section of Hyde Park.
A former slave, William Carney, retrieved the regiment’s flag at Fort Wagner after the original standard-bearer had been killed. For his heroism under fire, Carney became the first Black soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
“Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” Carney said after struggling back to the Union lines. After the war, he delivered mail in New Bedford for 32 years.
Although Shaw is the centerpiece of the memorial — a symbol of the social hierarchy of that era and beyond — the depiction of armed Black men “is definitely an innovative idea” for the time, Frazier said.
“Today, there are many people who walk by it every day who don’t know what it’s about,” she added.
That’s a lesson that involves more than buffing and buttressing pieces of bronze and stone. Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, said the work is providing “a platform for dialogue, a dialogue about race and social justice. What did these men die for, and how are we doing today with that?”
“I want people to feel inspired discomfort” when they look at the sculpture, added Vizza, whose organization maintains the city-owned monument. “I want this to be something that changes people, and not just because it’s a beautiful and significant piece of art.”
Fencing around the construction site now holds a wide range of interpretive signage, including information on the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery, the 54th Regiment, and the monument. The “museum-quality” installation, Vizza said, deserves to be preserved and displayed somewhere once the sculpture returns.
The genesis of the restoration dates to 2016, when a conservator noticed that stones in the facade had been displaced, Vizza recalled. That led to an investigation into what else might be amiss.
The conclusion? “We needed a fundamental reconstruction project,” Vizza said.
The National Park Service, the Museum of African American History, and the City of Boston joined the Friends in the effort.
The National Park Service is paying half the cost of the project. As part of the work, contractors will add material to make graffiti easier to remove, a need reinforced after the monument was defaced in May during protests about police brutality.
“There are a lot of people involved, and they all care,” said Lance Kasparian, the project manager and a historical architect for the National Parks of Boston.
Barbara Mangum, a bronze conservator on the restoration team, said the memorial at the corner of Beacon and Park streets should turn heads once again, giving new life and resonance to a sculpture that has been a fixture at that spot for 123 years.
“I think the public will be blown away,” she said.
Mangum pointed to a stirrup under Shaw’s right foot, a small piece of equipment that Saint-Gaudens had precisely sculpted, along with the Union uniforms and gear of the infantrymen and their drummer.
“No one will ever see that” from the sidewalk, Mangum said of the stirrup. “The attention to detail is evocative. All of it is accurate.”
Historical accuracy can be calibrated and defined, but questions about history change and evolve. That’s why restoring the memorial, its planners hope, could bring new attention to the ideals that Shaw and many of his soldiers died for.
“Its relevance is to really know that this is a moment along a long continuum of freedom, equality, justice, and the fight for it,” said Frazier, education director at the African American museum. “Justice is an ongoing, moving battle. The story is not static.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.