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In Memoriam: Honoring Heroes & Heroines Through Sculpture

Grade Level: 7–8

Using the history of the first African-American Regiment and the memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens as inspiration, students will understand and reflect upon the role of public commemorative sculpture in the United States. Then, they will research local monuments and draft designs for one in their hometown.


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


  • Computers with internet access for student research
  • Drawing materials
  • 3-D modeling materials (paper mache, clay, or wood, as art class allows)

Warm-Up Questions

What’s going on in this sculpture? What clues do their clothing and what they carry give you about who these men are?


The Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment was the first African-American troop organized in New England to fight in the Civil War. Recruitment began in February 1863, one month after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The recruits came from twenty-four states, one-quarter of them slave states. Among the new soldiers 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 son of prominent Boston abolitionists, was appointed to command the regiment, as military policy did not allow blacks to serve as officers. However, as a white leader in command of African-American troops, Shaw would have been put to death if he was captured.

On May 28, the largest crowd in Boston’s history assembled to see the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment march off to fight in the Civil War. Two months later, Shaw and one-third of his men died during the Union’s seige at Fort Wagner, one of the forts protecting Charleston, South Carolina, a bastion of the Confederacy. The brave conduct of this regiment inspired widespread enlistment of black men into 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 creating an equestrian statue of the young Colonel Shaw. The plan evolved, however, into a procession of black soldiers and 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

  • Artists often use horizontal and vertical lines in works of art to make them look stable and still. Take a look at the lines in this sculpture. How would you describe them? Where did the artist use diagonal lines? See the way the soldiers and horse look as if they are moving? Saint-Gaudens used diagonal lines in their bodies to make them look as if they are actually marching.
  • These soldiers were among the first African Americans who joined the Civil War in the fight to end slavery. When the South heard that African Americans were becoming soldiers, Confederate officials issued a proclamation that African Americans caught in uniform would be sold into slavery and white officers commanding them would be put to death. Knowing the challenges they faced, what character traits can you say the men of the Fifty-fourth Regiment possessed?
  • Why are these men heroes?
  • If this sculpture were to come to life and these soldiers were to march in front of you, what kinds of sounds might you hear?


Students will understand and reflect upon the role of public commemorative sculpture in the United States by creating their own memorial sculpture:

  1. Ask students to contribute to a list of ways we remember public or civic events. Some include: parades, sculptures, ritual celebrations, mosaics, murals, songs, slogans, legends, or insignia.
  2. What kind of public moments and public figures do we commemorate? Examples are New Year’s, birthdays of national leaders, religious events, or public service (veterans, presidents).
  3. How do we remember the Civil War? Examples are history books, television programs, family stories and mementos, Memorial Day and Veterans' Day, songs, or art.
  4. Public sculpture is a way of remembering. The Shaw Memorial commemorates:
    • the first African-American regiment of the North and the fifth black regiment in the Civil War
    • the bravery of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment and its leaders in storming Fort Wagner, South Carolina, when the odds were against them
    • their sacrifice in battle (281 of 600 died), which inspired many more African Americans to volunteer as soldiers (a total of nearly 180,000)
    • the regiment's courage in joining the Union troops, for blacks risked being sold into slavery if captured in uniform by Confederate soldiers, and white officers risked execution.
  5. Study the Shaw Memorial. Look at the relief sculpture created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Study it overall. Study its details. What does the memorial represent? Is this a specific moment? Why did the artist choose to depict the group in this way?
  6. Find memorials in your town. Students should make a list of local monuments using the internet and local resources. They should sketch or photograph the monuments, find photos of them, visit some of them, and create a visual portfolio in your classroom or for your school. As a class, assemble the findings and depictions of these local monuments. You'll be surprised at how much is known, but not shared, about neighborhood public sculpture.


As a class, select an event (historical or contemporary) to commemorate with a public sculpture. Call your local planning office. If your town is in the process of planning a memorial, you might participate by choosing that subject or event. Submit class ideas.

Form small design groups. Draw designs for each group's ideas. Remind students to integrate subjects, themes, and symbols into their work to communicate the intended meaning behind the memorial. Select materials such as paper, paper mache, clay, or wood. Build one project, as a class, or build each group's idea.

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn10.1.8 Make art collaboratively to reflect on and reinforce positive aspects of group identity.

VA:Cn11.1.8 Distinguish different ways art is used to represent, establish, reinforce, and reflect group identity.

VA:Cr1.1.8 Document early stages of the creative process visually and/or verbally in traditional or new media.

VA:Cr1.2.7 Develop criteria to guide making a work of art or design to meet an identified goal.

VA:Cr2.1.8 Demonstrate willingness to experiment, innovate, and take risks to pursue ideas, forms, and meanings that emerge in the process of art-making or designing.

VA:Cr2.3.8 Select, organize, and design images and words to make visually clear and compelling presentations.

VA:Cr3.1.8 Apply relevant criteria to examine, reflect on, and plan revisions for a work of art or design in progress.

VA:Re7.1.7 Explain how the method of display, the location, and the experience of an artwork influence how it is perceived and valued.

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

VA:Re8.1.8 Interpret art by analyzing how the interaction of subject matter, characteristics of form and structure, use of media, art-making approaches, and relevant contextual information contributes to understanding messages or 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: The First African American Regiment

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