The Shaw monument was erected in 1848 by Boston merchant and philanthropist Robert Gould Shaw (1776-1853) as the centerpiece for his family lot (Lot 1286, Pine Avenue).
Designed by the noted architect Hammatt Billings and executed by local stone carver Alpheus Cary, the large brownstone monument is one of Billings’ earliest realized funerary memorials, styled on a classical Roman temple and made of brownstone, marble, ancient marble, slate, and bronze. Hammatt Billings (1818-1874) was a prolific Boston architect, critic, and designer of public and private memorials. Sadly though, many of his most important pieces are no longer in existence. Alpheus Cary (1788- 1869) made many of the stone monuments at Mount Auburn Cemetery and his work can be found in every greater Boston area cemetery of the period. Cary was the principal stone carver for Mount Auburn in the 1830-40s. The Shaw monument’s 19th-century marble shows relief work of poppy seed heads convey a symbolic association of sleep. The center image, an ancient marble relief imported from Athens by Shaw, is inserted into the front face of the monument. The ancient Greco-Roman relief dates to the first century and depicts two winged boreads from Greek mythology.
Seven years after Robert Gould Shaw died in 1853, a bronze plaque was added to the front of the monument in commemoration of Shaw’s grandson, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. It is this plaque that would transform the memorial into one of national significance and make it one of Mount Auburn’s most important monuments. Colonel Shaw was the noted officer who led the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War. African Americans were initially denied the right to enlist in the military, and the Massachusetts 54th was one of the most notable regiments of free blacks to fight in the battle. “You know how many eminent men consider a negro army of the greatest importance to our country at this time,” Shaw wrote. “How fully repaid the pioneers in the movement will be, for what they may have to go through!” On July 18, 1863 Shaw led 600 men towards a Confederate fortification at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, a critical defense for Charleston. Shot through the heart, Shaw lost his life, and nearly half his soldiers were wounded, killed, or captured. The Colonel’s body was laid to rest with his fallen men in a mass grave at Fort Wagner.
In 2011, both the monument and the lot underwent extensive restoration and a comprehensive conservation plan was developed to preserve and protect the cherished memorial. In addition, the bronze plaque was treated so that its inscription can once again clearly proclaim:
This tablet is in Memory of
Robert Gould Shaw
Colonel 54th Masssts. Infantry
Fell at Fort Wagner S.C.
And was there buried, July 18th, 1863.
Aged 25 years 9 months.
“Greater love hath no man than this,
That a man lay down his life for his friends.”