Wednesday, June 3, 2015
June 3, 2015: Mount Auburn Connections: Robert Gould Shaw
[If you’re in New England, there are few more beautiful spots for a spring walk than Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. In this series, I’ll highlight a few American connections for this unique site and all it includes. Please share your thoughts, on this site and any other beautiful or evocative spaces you’d highlight, for a crowd-sourced weekend walk!]
Two prior posts and one additional thought on the cemetery’s most tragic and inspiring figure.
Although there is a memorial to Robert Gould Shaw amidst his prominent Bostonian family’s plot in Mount Auburn Cemetery, he isn’t buried there. That’s the result of one of American history’s most inspiring parental decisions, about which I wrote in this February 2013 post. The memorial overtly reminds us of that amazing moment and decision, as well as the tragic fact that Shaw was only 25 when he was killed alongside his men during the Union assault on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner; like the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts, Shaw’s death is part of the story of their sacrifice and meaning, but it’s impossible not to wonder what all of them might have done and been if their lives had continued into the rest of the 19th century.
Besides highlighting the details of both Shaw’s death and his burial, the Mount Auburn memorial also includes a quote from Scripture (John 15:13): “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Calling Shaw’s African American soldiers (and, for that matter, the slaves for whose freedom they and all other Union soldiers were fighting) “his friends” was a striking and important choice, one no doubt made purposefully by the abolitionist Shaw family in creating this memorial. And that choice complements quite directly many of the details of the more famous Shaw Memorial, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ stunning sculpture across from the State House on Boston Common. I wrote about the inspiring stories and histories behind the Shaw Memorial in this November 2010 post, one of the handful of pieces with which I began this blog; time has only deepened my appreciation for the work and all it includes and means.
Much of what I want to say about Shaw and the histories and themes to which he connects I said in those prior posts. But when it comes to Shaw’s Mount Auburn connection, I would add one more thing. My personal spiritual beliefs are far from the point here, but I would note that one thing in which I do believe is the soul, the existence of a fundamental part of our identities (both individual and communal) that exists outside of our physical bodies and thus that can endure long beyond our deaths. I can think of few American souls that deserve a peaceful resting place more than Robert Gould Shaw’s, and few American spaces that could better provide such a home than Mount Auburn Cemetery. I’m very glad that Shaw’s body remained with his soldiers in that South Carolina mass grave; and equally glad that we can imagine his soul among the pastoral beauties of Mount Auburn.
Next connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sites or spaces you’d share?