The Memorial Day of 1897 was among the most significant of such days in Boston’s history. That day, May 31, 1897, had been designated for the dedication of the “Robert Gould Shaw Memorial” on Boston Common.
At the time, Memorial Day, then more commonly known as “Decoration Day,” was a relatively new observance. The tradition grew out of the Civil War and several scattered efforts, some of them as early as 1865, to formally decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. In 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (the veterans organization for Union soldiers), issued a proclamation that Decoration Day, May 30, 1868, should be observed nationwide. All GAR posts were encouraged to decorate “the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion…If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.”
The tradition was somewhat slow to catch on. I have tried to find some accounts of early Memorial Day observances in Massachusetts, but they are elusive. It seems the holiday was observed as early as 1868 in Boston and other towns. In 1880, the Commander of the Massachusetts Department of the GAR, John G.B. Adams, formerly a captain in the 19th Massachusetts Infantry and recipient of the Medal of Honor, wrote, “Decoration Day was observed with more than usual interest the past year, many towns observing it for the first time. This, my comrades, to us is a sacred day; and it is our duty, by all honorable means, to see that it is sacredly observed…This day does much to keep the spirit of loyalty alive in the hearts of the people. It recalls to their minds the sufferings, sacrifices and devotion of our own dead comrades.”
Thus, by 1897, the observance was fairly well established. And in that year, Boston would witness its most momentous Memorial Day up to that time…perhaps ever.
The procession in honor of the Shaw Memorial consisted of thousands from the Massachusetts Militia and the United States Army. After parading through Boston, these units formed up in front of the State House and stood at attention while Governor Roger Wolcott and other officials were escorted to the shrouded memorial by survivors of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantries (the two black regiments raised in Massachusetts).
The monument was unveiled, ships in the harbor and batteries on the Common fired salvos. And then ceremonies moved to the Boston Music Hall which was packed to utmost capacity.
Among the many addresses, the most memorable was given by Dr. William James, then 55 years old, a long-time professor of Harvard University and renowned physician, psychologist and philosopher. Dr. James had struggled with the address. During the war, he had been deeply involved in his studies at Harvard. He also suffered from a variety of illness which prevented him from enlisting. Two of his brothers, however, enlisted. One of them, Wilky James, became an officer in Colonel Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts. Wilky participated in the regiment’s futile charge on Fort Wagner outside of Charleston harbor–the assault in which Shaw and 281 members of the 54th Massachusetts (almost half of the regiment) were killed, wounded or captured. Wilky narrowly escaped death, suffering terrible injuries to his legs which troubled him from the remainder of his short life. He died in 1883.
The memory of his brother’s tribulations and his own frustration at being unable to participate in the war perhaps, in part, explain why his Shaw address was so difficult for him to write. Later, he wrote his brother Harry that the speech had been a “schoolboy composition, in good taste enough, but academic and conventional.” I think he was being too hard on himself.
Standing before the huge assembly, William James began, “In these unveiling exercises the duty falls to me of expressing in simple words some of the feelings which have actuated the givers of St. Gaudens’ noble work of bronze, and of briefly recalling the history of Robert Shaw and of his regiment to the memory of this possibly too forgetful generation.”
The memorial which Dr. James described had also been the subject of some agony by the artist, Augustus St. Gaudens. It had been 14 years in the making. St. Gaudens was Irish-born but raised primarily in New York. He studied sculpture in Paris and Rome then returned to the United States to create some greatly celebrated works of art. The Shaw Memorial is generally regarded as his best. Initially, he intended the sculpture to be an equestrian statue, depicting the young Robert Gould Shaw alone, high atop a pedestal, astride a horse. Shaw’s family would have none of that. They wanted the Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry depicted with his troops, just as he had died and been buried with them. It would be the first Civil War monument of its kind. No solitary statue of a high-ranking officer, no generic infantryman like so many that had been placed atop Civil War memorials on so many town commons. This monument would depict a unit–officer and soldiers together. And each soldier unique, individual.
“There on foot go the dark outcasts, so true to nature that one can almost hear them breathing as they march,” Dr. James said in his address. “…There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man. There on horseback, among them, in his very habit as he lived, sits the blue-eyed child of fortune…Onward they move together, a single resolution kindled in their eyes, and animating their otherwise so different frames.”
After describing in detail the service and bravery of Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts in patriotic terms, Dr. James’s tone became more melancholy. “How soon, indeed, are human things forgotten! As we meet here this morning, the Southern sun is shining on their place of burial, and the waves sparkling and the sea-gulls circling around Fort Wagner’s ancient site. But the great earthworks and their thundering cannon, the commanders and their followers, the wild assault and repulse that for a brief space made night hideous on that far-off evening, have all sunk into the blue gulf of the past, and for the majority of this generation are hardly more than an abstract name, a picture, a tale that is told. Only when some yellow-bleached photograph of a soldier of the ‘sixties comes into our hands…do we realize the concreteness of that by-gone history…The photographs themselves erelong will fade utterly, and books of history and monuments like this alone will tell the tale.”
It is not surprising but nonetheless interesting that General Logan, Captain Adams and Doctor James should all dwell on the same refrain: remember, recall, do not forget. And now there are many working in countless ways to make certain that the photographs do not fade, that the letters and journals survive so that their memories do not sink into the blue gulf of history but that their words and thoughts remain vivid and alive, and that their memorials are marked, cared for and decorated.
This Memorial Day, take a moment to remember.
[Sources: Robert Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of Modernism, (2007); "Boston Honors Col. Shaw," New York Times, May 31, 1897; William James, "Robert Gould Shaw: Oration at the Exercises in the Boston Music Hall," May 31, 1897; E.B. Stillings, Early History of the Massachusetts Department of the GAR, p. 367.]