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One hundred and fifty years ago today, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was crushed in a battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. It was the first African-American volunteer infantry unit in the Civil War. This is the unit featured in the film "Glory." It's also memorialized on the Boston Common in a sculpture by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Andrea Shea, of member station WBUR, has the story behind the sculpture and the men who inspired it.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: The Shaw Memorial stands 11 feet by 14 feet, like a giant bronze diorama on the corner of Boston Common. In it, 40 or so black soldiers march to war alongside their white colonel on horseback.

BEVERLY MORGAN-WELCH: When an individual encounters this monument and it sits across from the Massachusetts State House, you have got to ask yourself why?

SHEA: Beverly Morgan-Welch, director of the Museum of African-American History in Boston, says the answer is simple.

MORGAN-WELCH: It shows in their stance and their eyes, their pride; and it shows them marching out of Boston for what they know is going to be a sea change in the history of their generation.

SHEA: They were the first. The film "Glory" explains it early on. Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the father of the man who would eventually lead the 54th introduce what would be a watershed idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GLORY")

PETER MICHAEL GOETZ: (as Francis George Shaw) The governor is proposing to raise a regiment of Negro soldiers.

ALAN NORTH: (as Gov. John Albion Andrew) No, no, no, it was not just my idea. Mr. Douglass...

RAYMOND ST. JACQUES: (as Frederick Douglass) We will offer pride and dignity to those who have known only degradation.

SHEA: The Shaw Memorial itself has the kind of movement you'd see in the frame of a movie, says Henry Duffy, curator of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., where the artist lived and worked.

HENRY DUFFY: In the front, the procession is led by a drummer, but half the drum is off the edge of the picture. And in the back, the last soldier, the legs are cut off so you get a sense that there's more happening in front and behind.

SHEA: The meticulous Saint-Gaudens trained in Paris. He was already world famous when a committee in Boston commissioned him to make the monument in 1883.

DUFFY: He was originally focusing just on Col. Shaw, and it was Shaw's parents who told him, no, if you're going to do a monument to our son, you have to include his men because he was dedicated to his men, and the men have to be part of it.

SHEA: Recruiting black soldiers was symbolic and strategic. The carnage was far worse than expected, and the Union needed more men. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued in January 1863, enabled newly freed slaves to join. Col. Robert Gould Shaw chose to fight with the 54th at Fort Wagner rather than command from the sidelines. Six hundred men stormed the fort; 272 died. Shaw, just 25 years old, was the first to fall, making him a hero to his surviving men and the rest of the Union.

DUFFY: This man took a bullet for a black man in 1863. It was something that really inspired them.

SHEA: Duffy says Shaw's sacrifice inspired Saint-Gaudens to the point of obsession. He was supposed to complete his commission in six months. Instead, he took 14 years.

DUFFY: It haunted him. I think he just couldn't get it out of his mind.

SHEA: Even after installing the first sculpture in Boston, the artist continued to tinker with other versions for three more years. Finally, he stopped with the one here at his home in New Hampshire.

DUFFY: I think like Shaw himself, Saint-Gaudens had his eyes opened. He had - never had much to do with black people, just like Shaw, so that when he had to do this, he was faced with having to - for the first time in his life, I think - look at people and not stereotypes.

SHEA: Saint-Gaudens sat for hours with black models in his studio. The realistic faces he captured inspired the likes of writer Henry James, poet Robert Lowell and composer Charles Ives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Shaw Memorial is the first time black Americans were ever portrayed in a work of sculpture as heroic.

SHEA: Historian and Bostonian David McCullough.

MCCULLOUGH: Otherwise, they were background. But here, they are the heroes who would, many of them, pay the ultimate price.

SHEA: That's one reason the Black Heritage Trail walking tour in Boston starts at Augustus Saint-Gauden's Shaw Memorial.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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