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The First African American Regiment

Grade Level: 7–8

Students will be introduced to the first African American Regiment that fought in the Civil War through a memorial sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. They will compare and contrast the experiences of these soldiers through their portrayal in letters, films (the motion picture, Glory, and a documentary film), and poetry, before writing their own poem using the sculpture as their inspiration.


Augustus Saint-Gaudens
American, 1848–1907
Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment, 1900
patinated plaster, 419.1 x 524.5 x 109.2 cm (165 x 206 1/2 x 43 in.)
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire



Curriculum Connections

  • History/Social Studies
  • Language Arts
  • Performing Arts


  • Writing materials
  • Motion picture, Glory
  • Documentary film on the Fifty-fourth Regiment
  • DVD player to show films
  • Copies of poems (links provided in Extension section)

Warm-Up Questions

What was one of the issues that started the Civil War? Why were abolitionists against slavery?


At the beginning of the Civil War, Richard Harvey Cain, a student at Wilberforce University in Ohio, was among a group of black students who attempted to join the Union Army in Ohio. Cain was turned down. Below he writes about the events after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter and the importance of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment, one of the first Black military units to be organized in the North during the Civil War.

I shall never forget the thrill that ran through my soul when I thought of the coming consequences of that shot. There were one hundred and fifteen of us students at the University, who, anxious to vindicate the stars and stripes, made up a company and offered our services to the Governor of Ohio; and sir, we were told that this is a white man’s war and that the Negro had nothing to do with it. Sir, we returned, docile, patient, waiting, casting our eyes to the Heavens whence help always comes. We knew that there would come a period in the history of this nation when our strong black arms would be needed. We waited patiently; we waited until Massachusetts, through her noble Governor, sounded the alarm, and we hastened to hear the summons and obey it.

Letter by Richard Harvey Cain written at the time of the Civil War, quoted in Zak Mettger, Till Victory is Won: Black Soldiers in the Civil War (New York: Puffin Books, 1997), 2.

As the United States grew in population and area in the 1800s, the issues of slavery and state’s rights increasingly divided the country. While factories in the North were drawing people from farms to towns and cities, at midcentury, the economy in the South remained tied to agriculture. Of the eleven million people living in the South in 1860, nearly four million were slaves, and most worked on farms. Abolitionists wanted to end slavery, but many people in the South believed in the states’ right to decide this issue. Slavery and its spread to the western frontier became two of the most argued issues in the country.

In late 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, quickly followed by other southern states. Together they formed the Confederate States of America. When Confederate forces fired on the U.S. Army’s Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861, the Civil War began.

As the war progressed, many black men decided to form their own regiments to fight for the Union. In 1862 Congress agreed to their enlistment and more than 186,000 African-American men signed up. They were not paid as much as white soldiers or were not paid at all, were given poor equipment, and often ran out of supplies. To make matters worse, Confederate soldiers threatened to enslave or kill any black soldiers they captured, and kill their white commanders. Overcoming these hardships, black soldiers proved themselves heroically in battle. They led raids, served as spies and scouts, fought in battles, and faced some of the worst confrontations in the war. They helped win the war for the Union.

The Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment, the one of the first African-American military units in the North, began recruitment in February 1863, one month after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The recruits came from twenty-four states; one-quarter of them slave states. Among the recruits were barbers, boatmen, laborers, cabinetmakers, a dentist, and a druggist. Some were as young as sixteen. Some were fathers enlisting with sons. Members of the regiment included Frederick Douglass’ two sons, the grandson of abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and William H. Carney, the first African American to win the Medal of Honor. Robert Gould Shaw, the white son of prominent Boston abolitionists, was appointed to command the regiment, as military policy did not allow black men to serve as officers.

On May 28, the largest crowd in Boston’s history assembled to see the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment march off to fight. Two months later, Shaw and one-third of his men died during the Union’s siege at Fort Wagner, one of the forts protecting Charleston, South Carolina, a bastion of the Confederacy. The brave conduct of this regiment inspired black men like Richard Harvey Cain to enlist in the Union forces.

After the battle of Fort Wagner, proposals were made by men of the Fifty-fourth to erect a memorial. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens took almost a dozen years to create it. He began with the idea of an equestrian statue of the young Colonel Shaw. The plan evolved into a procession of black soldiers with their leader, moving together toward the goal of emancipation. The monument is cast in very high relief. To make each soldier individualized, Saint-Gaudens created forty heads using live models of different ages. Seen in profile are the mounted Colonel Shaw and rows of soldiers carrying rifles, packs, and canteens, all led by young drummer boys. Above the procession floats an angel holding an olive branch, symbolizing peace, and poppies, symbolizing death.

Guided Practice

  • Why was the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment so important?
  • Why do you think the relief sculpture includes an angel carrying poppies above the soldiers?
  • Richard Harvey Cain’s letter tells of the pride and eagerness one black man had being able to serve in the Civil War. How is this mood also conveyed in the sculpture? (Men standing straight, moving forward, focused expressions.)
  • Why do you think black men like Richard Harvey Cain wanted to fight in the Civil War?
  • What can you learn about how war was fought in the nineteenth century from Saint-Gaudens’ relief sculpture? How are battles and weapons different today?
  • This memorial by Saint-Gaudens inspired other arts, such as song, film, and poetry. What gives the sculpture this power?
  • What new information has this sculpture and letter taught you about the nineteenth century? 


Show students the motion picture Glory followed by a showing of any one of the historical documentaries related to the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment. As students watch, they should take notes that answer the following questions:

  • How would you compare the films?
  • Which film is a more valid interpretation of the history of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment? Why?
  • Draw up a list of documentary information provided by both films. Which film seems to have more? Why?
  • If you think the documentary has a more accurate interpretation of history, why and how did you reach this conclusion?


Provide students with copies of four of the thirty or more poems that have been written about the memorial. Recommended poems are:

Tell the students that these poems were inspired by both the Saint-Gaudens monument and the story of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment. Students should be aware of the time period when these poems were written. Have four students volunteer to read the poem aloud while others follow along. After the listening/reading exercise ask students the following questions:

  • Which poem did they like? Why?
  • Which poem best tells the story of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment? Why?
  • Which poem best interprets the monument? Why?
  • Why do the more recent poems have a bitter edge?

Then students will write their own poems about the sculpture, Shaw, or the Regiment.

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National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn11.1.7 Analyze how response to art is influenced by understanding the time and place in which it was created, the available resources, and cultural uses.

VA:Re7.2.7 Analyze multiple ways that images influence specific audiences.

VA:Re8.1.7 Interpret art by analyzing art-making approaches, the characteristics of form and structure, relevant contextual information, subject matter, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.

Download an Art in the Classroom poster about the Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (PDF 685kb)

Download images related to the Shaw Memorial

Studio Lesson: Interpreting Photographs (Download PDF, 66kb)

Curriculum Connections to the Shaw Memorial (Download PDF, 877kb)

Online Lesson & Activity: In Memoriam: Honoring Heroes & Heroines Through Sculpture

Learn more about the first African American infantry unit in this teaching packet

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Search the Libray of Congress’s collection of Civil War photographs

View the National Archives records of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment

Download a family-oriented guide about Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Register for evening and weekend teacher professional development workshops and apply to participate in the summer teacher institute