Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

The Massachusetts 54th Regiment: Honoring the Heroes


The Lesson


Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848—1907), Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial, Beacon and Park Streets, Boston, MA, 1884–1897. Bronze, 11 x 14 ft. (3.35 x 4.27 m.).

Credit: Photograph courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith.





. . . . . CHARLES W. ELIOT, Inscription on marble surround

What’s so special about The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston and the men it honors? Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s huge monument pays tribute to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, one of the first African American units to fight in the Civil War. In this lesson students carefully observe and analyze the memorial, read and answer questions about Shaw and the 54th Regiment, pose for a photograph like the men in the sculpture, and then create a comic strip featuring one of the heroes of this regiment. If necessary, point out to students that such a comic is not necessarily funny or amusing

Guiding Questions

  • How did Saint-Gaudens show the heroism of a military regiment and their commander in the Shaw Memorial?
  • What characteristics did the men who served in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment possess

Learning Objectives

  • Understand how Saint-Gaudens expressed the heroism of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in the Shaw Memorial.
  • Discuss the role that Robert Gould Shaw played in the Civil War.
  • Discuss the impact that African American soldiers, particularly of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, had on the Civil War.


Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and the Memorial

Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin in 1884 to a French shoemaker and Irish mother. As a baby, his family moved to New York City. At thirteen he was apprenticed to a cameo carver. He took free evening art courses at Cooper Union and then studied in Paris at the Academy of Design and the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1870 he moved to Rome, began his art career, and met Augusta Homer, a cousin of Winslow Homer. They married when he received his first major commission, to create a statue of Admiral Farragut in Madison Square Park in New York.

Robert Shaw Memorial

Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s first idea for a sculpture honoring Colonel Robert G. Shaw was an equestrian statue. But, Shaw’s family rejected it as too pretentious for the 26-year-old colonel. Then Saint-Gaudens conceived a bas-relief (“bas” from the French for low) of Shaw with his men. During the twelve years that Saint-Gaudens worked on this memorial, he sculpted 40 clay studies of African American heads, but only included sixteen in the final sculpture. He bought a horse to use as a model. When it died, he rented another from a stable. The relief of the horse and rider are a freestanding sculpture. Saint-Gaudens’s friend, architect Charles Follen McKim, designed the architectural setting for the bronze sculpture.

Saint-Gaudens included allegorical symbols to suggest this sculpture’s meaning. The angel floating above the soldiers holds an olive branch representing peace and poppies for death and remembrance.

Saint-Gaudens created a steady marching rhythm across the sculpture with the soldiers, horse, and angel facing same direction, moving resolutely to the right. Overlapping figures create a sense of depth and unity. Our eyes pick out and group the repeated shapes.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Look and Think

Distribute copies of Activity 1 Look and Think worksheets and sets of color markers, pencils, or crayons. You may wish to project the full-screen image of the Shaw Memorial for students to reference as they complete and discuss their answers to the worksheet. You may project the Answer Diagram after students complete their worksheets. Use the worksheets to structure careful observation, analysis, and inferences about this sculpture.

  1. Observe
    1. Circle 3 canteens with blue. Have students locate all these on the projected image.
    2. Circle 3 bedrolls with yellow. Notice how many circular shapes (bedrolls, canteens, heads) are repeated. Repetition of shapes creates unity in an artwork.
    3. Draw a blue line on the rider’s sword. The rider is the only figure with a sword and boots.
    4. Circle the figure in the sky with red. She holds poppy flowers and an olive branch.
    5. Circle the drummer with orange. The drummers were boys and smaller than the soldiers.
    6. Draw 3 yellow parallel lines through 3 parallel legs. Even the horse has a leg parallel with the soldiers. Students might mark the set of soldier legs that extend backwards or the set that are straight up and down as they step forward.
    7. Draw 3 straight green lines on three rifle barrels. The rifles fill the space between the heavenly and earthly figures.
    8. Circle a flag with red. There are two flags. Saint-Gaudens sculpted the regiment flag from sketches of the actual regiment flag in the State House.
    9. Circle the olive branch with purple. The angel holds the long leafy branch.
    10. Describe two faces. Circle the faces you describe with orange. How are they alike? How are they different? Students should notice beards and apparent ages. Saint-Gaudens sculpted a variety of facial types.
  2. Analyze
    1. Circle the highest man’s head with blue. That’s Colonel Shaw riding the horse.
    2. Draw an arrow below the picture showing the direction they are moving. Everything moves to the right.
    3. How did the artist make some figures and objects look closer to you than others? He overlapped figures and made the closest figures in high relief with more depth away from the background.
    4. This sculpture is a relief, or a sculpture designed to be looked at from the front, with areas that come out from the background. Bas-relief is a very shallow relief with features that are slightly raised from the background. Color a bas-relief object on the sculpture pink. Any of the background figures or objects are bas-reliefs.
    5. Parts of this sculpture are actually freestanding or three-dimensional sculpture. Color the head of one of these freestanding figures yellow. Both the horse and Colonel Shaw’s heads are freestanding sculpture.
    6. Which figure seems most important? The equestrian, Colonel Shaw.
    7. How did the artist call attention to this figure to make him seem most important? He’s in the center of the composition, in highest relief, and he’s higher than the other men.
  3. Infer
    1. What are these men doing? Explain why you think this. Their legs look like they are marching. Their weapons and equipment suggest that they are soldiers going to war.
    2. What race or ethnic group are these marching men? African Americans. Saint-Gaudens carefully sculpted their facial features to show their ethnicity.
    3. Describe the mood of these men. determined, resolute, or serious.
    4. Who or what might the figure in the sky represent? It might represent the angel of death because within two months over half of the men would die in battle, or a figure of victory, which is conventionally shown winged. On the other hand, it might have no specific meaning at all.
    5. The bas-relief Latin inscription above and to the right of the horse’s head is:


      The English translation of this is: “He relinquished everything to serve the Republic.” Write what this means in your own words. Students should understand that Shaw and his volunteers died defending their country.

    6. Usually Civil War monuments to a military hero feature one standing man or an equestrian. Artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens shows Colonel Robert G. Shaw with his men. What seems to be the message of this monument? This shows him as a leader of his men and part of the regiment.
    7. The Shaw Memorial took three decades to be built. A decade after the Civil War, the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner drafted a statement of the purpose of the memorial. He wrote that it “is intended not only to mark the public gratitude to the fallen hero who at a critical moment assumed a perilous responsibility, but also to commemorate that great event wherein he was a leader by which the title of colored men as citizen soldiers was fixed beyond recall”. What does Sumner mean by the phrase “citizen soldier”? It was widely held in this period that men who fought for their country had strong claims to the full rights of citizenship.
    8. The monument was unveiled in 1897. Did the purpose of the monument as Senator Sumner had stated it still hold? Why or why not? Students will need to know that the situation of black people in the had declined since Reconstruction. They were segregated and disenfranchised by law throughout the southern states and in many northern states in fact as well.
Activity 2. Read, Answer, and Discuss

Have students read the Activity 2 Reading sheet about Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Once students have finished reading, have them answer the Activity 2 Reading Questions sheet. As a whole class discuss the students’ answers to the Reading Questions.

Activity 3. Strike a Pose!

Have students pose together like the figures in the memorial. Photograph them in this pose. Imagine this as “living picture.” Project or print this photo and give one to each table or group of students to look at. Have small groups discuss these.

Guided Discussion Questions:

  1. Make sure that students take notice of the direction of the feet of the soldiers. What does it mean that the feet are all pointing in one direction forward?
  2. What do you notice about the proximity of the soldiers to each other? How does this affect the feeling in the group?
  3. What are the characteristics of heroes?
  4. Can you tell a hero by looking at him or her?

When small groups have discussed sufficiently, have a whole class discussion.


Create a Comic Strip

Create a comic strip about Robert Gould Shaw and the members of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Develop one of the men in the memorial into a hero. What characteristics might he have or wish he had? List these characteristics. Discuss with students how they might emphasize a characteristic by drawing some body parts larger or using an unusual viewpoint, like looking up or down at a figure.

From the list of characteristics students should draw a short comic strip showing these heroic or super hero powers. Students should not alter history, but rather demonstrate the characteristics of the soldiers through their drawing. Students who have access to Comic Life computer software may choose to do their comic strip on the computer. A comic strip template has been provided.

The well thought-out comic should

  • incorporate “hero” language;
  • use proportions to illustrate characteristics, (for example, a student may draw a large heart to show that they are very caring, or an oversized hand to show that they were hot to fight);
  • demonstrate effective use of black and white and/or color to emphasize the characteristics they show;
  • be true to historical events and history (i.e., do not alter what happened in history just to make the comic “better”).

Extending The Lesson

  • Encourage students to explore the Interactive photograph of the Shaw Memorial that is connected to this lesson. The questions in this activity could be an assessment test.
  • The Robert G. Shaw Memorial and the heroism of the 54th regiment have inspired poems and songs. Students may read For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell and listen to Ives: "Three Places In New England."
  • Show students the movie Glory, 1989, directed by Edward Zwick.
  • Have students create saucer-sized clay reliefs of another Civil War hero.
  • Visit a local war memorial and compare it to the Shaw Memorial. Do they both have figures and names? Are they both reliefs?
Selected EDSITEment Websites
Teacher/Student Resources
Definition of relief sculpture
Poems and Music

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Art History
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Visual art analysis
  • Kaye Passmore, Ed.D, Art Education Consultant (Corpus Christi, TX)
  • Amy Trenkle, NBCT, 8th Grade U.S. History Teacher, Stuart-Hobson Middle School (Washington, DC)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources