Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863)

Robert Gould Shaw was a young Bostonian with impeccable family connections, strongly abolitionist parents, and battle experience. Born 10 October 1837, he was the only son of Francis Gould and Sarah Sturgis Shaw. Socially conscious and deeply devoted to intellectual and spiritual pursuits, the Shaws counted among their friends and associates such thinkers, writers, and reformers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

From 1856 until March 1859, Shaw attended Harvard University, but he withdrew before receiving his degree, entering his uncle's business in New York instead. After Lincoln's election and the secession of several southern states, Shaw joined the Seventh New York Regiment and marched with it to the defense of Washington in April 1861. The unit served only thirty days, but in the army Shaw at last found a vocation that commanded his enthusiasm and respect. In May he joined the Second Massachusetts Infantry as First Lieutenant.

During nearly two years of service in the Second, in which he rose to the rank of captain, Shaw was wounded at Antietam and saw some of his closest comrades fall in battle. But his resolve grew only firmer with each fight. In February 1863, Francis Shaw personally delivered Governor John Andrew's offer of command of the new Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment to his son Robert, then at Stafford Court House, Virginia. Not certain he was "equal to the responsibility of such a position," and no doubt reluctant to leave the regiment to which he was devoted, the younger Shaw at first declined the offer. But his strong sense of duty prevailed. "Now," his mother wrote after he had accepted the colonelcy, "I feel ready to die, for I see you willing to give y[ou]r support to the cause of truth that is lying crushed and bleeding."

Although Shaw supported the idea of blacks in the military, his connection with African Americans had been more theoretical than actual, and he seems, at first, to have been surprised by the impressive soldiering abilities of his enlistees. The men's accounts reveal that respect and understanding grew steadily between this very demanding commander and his troops during their weeks of training.

Massachusetts 54th

Governor Andrew recruited Robert Gould Shaw, son of prominent Boston abolitionists and a captain in the 2nd Massachusetts regiment, which had seen action at Antietam, to lead the new African American troop, as military policy did not allow blacks to serve as officers.

Reaction from the South to black recruitment was swift. The Confederate Congress issued a proclamation that African Americans captured in uniform would be sold into slavery, and white officers of such troops would be executed. Though not carried out, the threat was a grave challenge to every recruit and officer of the Massachusetts 54th.

1863 March - May

Training began as soon as recruits began arriving and continued until the regiment sailed to its first post. On May 12, the 54th reached its full number of 1,000 soldiers. At Colonel Shaw's insistence his men were issued light blue infantry uniforms instead of the darker blue worn by blacks doing support labor for the army. On May 18, Shaw's regiment received a request from General David Hunter, commander of the Department of the South, for their regiment to proceed to Beaufort, South Carolina. On May 28 the regiment marched from Readville through Boston and down to the harbor. Their procession through Boston passed Shaw's family home and the Boston State House amid crowds lining the streets.

1863 June

On June 3 one of the companies sailed to Hilton Head, South Carolina. On June 10 some of the 54th troop were forced to loot and burn the small town of Darien, Georgia, of no military import. Shaw protested the burning and the degradation of the high purpose of the regiment.

1863 July

Shaw achieved transfer of his troops to another command, insisting upon the importance of black participation in active war theatres. On July 8 the regiment was dispatched to James Island, near Charleston. On July 16, companies of the 54th provided rear-guard support to a company attacked by Confederates trying to recapture the island; they held their line and were cited for bravery. The regiment then went to Morris Island, at the northern end of which stood Fort Wagner.

Fort Wagner was a large earth and sandbag fortification, one of several guarding the strategic harbor of Charleston. Approachable only along a narrow strip of shore and armed with large artillery, the garrison was a massive, seemingly invincible bulwark.

On July 17-18, while the Union navy shelled Fort Wagner from the sea, the men of the 54th traversed from James Island to Cole's and then Folly Island toward Morris Island. They walked on planks in the mud flats, boarded transport boats from the edge of one island to the other, and, though tired and parched after a night and day of travel, undertook responsibility for an infantry attack on the fort.

The assault was to be at dusk. Shaw positioned himself at the front of his regiment, not behind as was customary. At 3:00 p.m. they marched to within 1,000 yards of the battlement. At 7:45 p.m. the regiment advanced to close range. As they stormed the fort they were met with shelling. Many fell, but the troops kept moving forward and up the fort's sloped, sandy walls. Shaw was shot as he neared the top of the parapet. He pitched over into the fort, dead. Of the 600 men, 281 were killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner.

On July 19, a truce was declared. Shaw was stripped and thrown into a ditch with his soldiers, contrary to ceremonial burials usually provided for officers. Northern newspapers reported on the trench burial. Recruitment in the North was stirred, and Shaw's parents later rejected an offer to have their son's body exhumed, writing that they could hope for "no holier place" for it than "...surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers."


Fort Wagner was abandoned on September 6, 1863. Union troops occupied the fort; Charleston had been exposed. The 54th went on to Florida, distinguishing itself in the battle of Olustee from which several men were taken to the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Among them was Corporal James Henry Gooding, who sent letters published in his hometown newspaper, the New Bedford, Massachusetts "Mercury" before dying at Andersonville in July of 1864. The 54th also fought at Honey Hill, South Carolina (November 30, 1864) and at Boykins Mills (April 18, 1865). On September 1, 1865, the regiment received discharge papers and marched past the State House in Boston on the very route they had taken when they departed for war.

The Massachusetts 54th had refused pay rather than accept the $10 a month specified by the Militia Act (passed on July 17, 1862) which deducted $3 from black soldiers' salaries for clothing while also specifying an addition of $3 per month to white soldiers' pay for a clothing allowance. The prejudicial discrepancy was finally resolved by an act of Congress, which authorized black troops to receive pay equal to their white counterparts. By the end of the Civil War over 175,000 African Americans had volunteered to serve the Union, accounting for 10% of the North's army and navy.