It is the figures and faces of the 16 black soldiers who follow and precede him in unison, carrying bayonets on their shoulders, marching on Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 before 20,000 who came to send them off, to fight Confederates hundreds of miles away.
Listen carefully and you can hear the sounds the drummer boy makes as he leads the procession.
The work, called the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century, is well known as the Shaw Memorial, named after the aristocratic white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863) who commanded the first black brigade from the North, one of the first groups of black soldiers to fight for the Union Army.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment left Boston and sailed for points south. In July about 600 members assisted other Union forces in attacking Fort Wagner, a guardian of Charleston's harbor.
Members of the 54th included sons of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Charles and Lewis, and men from northern states, southern and border states, Canada, and some runaway slaves.
Although they did not win at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, and half of the 54th Regiment were wounded or killed, along with Lt. Shaw, their heroism and dedication became part of America's legacy, to be brilliantly remembered and portrayed in the masterful bronze made by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) which was unveiled at Boston Common on Memorial Day, May 31, 1897 where it stands now.
The National Gallery's 54th memorial model is gold leaf patinated plaster, modified by Saint-Gaudens after the original was completed, and submitted in 1900 to international competition in Paris where it won the Grand Prize. The sculptor made changes on the plaster model to soldiers' faces, the horse, and the allegorical figure at the top, commonly perceived as an angel who carries an olive branch and poppies.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the soldiers' bravery, the National Gallery hosts with the sculpture an exhibition through January 20 of photographs, letters, documents and other original material. Two galleries of information outline the background and the making of the sculpture which took Saint-Gaudens 14 years to finish. When asked what took so long, he said it wasn't the execution of the piece but "the thinking about it," according to the catalogue.
The name of the exhibition: Tell It With Pride comes from an anonymous July 31, 1863 letter to Col. Shaw's parents conveying the horrible news of their son's death in battle: "The black soldiers marched side by side with their white comrades in arms to the assault. (Tell it with pride to the world.)"
Rather than having only their son captured in art, the Shaws wanted the sculptor to express the mission of white and black soldiers together, all heroes united in their dedication to the cause.
The same year the memorial won the Grand Prize in Paris, Sergeant William H. Carney, a Norfolk, Virginia native and member of the 54th, was honored as the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, 37 years after Ft. Wagner.
Instead of the elaborate ceremonies with the president in the White House which honor Medal of Honor recipients today, Sergeant Carney received his medal in the mail.
Although severely wounded at Ft. Wagner, he managed to carry the flag upright throughout the conflict: "Boys, I did but my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground."
The sculpture and event have been the subjects of articles and books, a movie (Glory), a song, and poems by many, including Robert Lowell and Paul Laurence Dunbar*, the first African American to gain fame as a poet and for whom Washington's Dunbar High School is named.
As a youngster growing up in the century after the conflict, Marine Lieutenant Timothy Fallon remembered the movie and the sculpture he saw with his family on a visit to the National Gallery of Art. In 2011 with special Gallery permission and in a private showing with members of his family present, Lt. Fallon was permitted to touch the sculpture and recall its magnificence. Blinded by an explosion in Afghanistan, he can no longer see it in person. Afterwards, Lt. Fallon wrote:
This piece should kindle pride in any officer who has led men into battle….The Shaw Memorial depicts only one officer, and the rest of the figures are the men who must do the majority of the fighting, bleeding, and dying….It has been 150 years since the Civil War, but this memorial to freedom fighters and the man who led them is as relevant today as it might have been the morning after the failed but determined assault on Fort Wagner.
Assisted by survivors of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the Union attempt at Ft. Wagner was eventually successful.
*Robert Gould Shaw published 1903 by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Why was it that the thunder voice of Fate
Should call thee, studious, from the classic groves,
Where calm-eyed Pallas with still footsteps roves,
And charge thee seek the turmoil of the State?
What bade thee hear the voice and rise elate,
Leave home and kindred and thy spicy loaves,
To lead th' unlettered and despised droves
To manhood's home and thunder at the gate?
Far better the slow blaze of Learning's light,
The cool and quiet of her dearer fane,
Than this hot terror of a hopeless fight,
This cold endurance of the final pain,-
Since thou and those who with thee died for right
Have died, the Present teaches, but in vain!
I can't wait to return and see the exhibition again.
What: Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial
When: Now through January 20, 2014, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sunday.
Where: Main Floor, the West Building, National Gallery of Art, between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. On the Mall.
Admission: No charge
Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza
For more information: 202-737-4215
At Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington is another Augustus Saint-Gaudens' sculpture, the Adams Memorial with a replica at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.