Robert Gould Shaw

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This article is about the American Civil War Colonel. For his first cousin, the Massachusetts landowner, see Robert Gould Shaw II. For other persons with a similar name, see Robert Shaw.
Robert Gould Shaw
Robert Gould Shaw.jpg
Shaw in May 1863
Born (1837-10-10)October 10, 1837
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died July 18, 1863(1863-07-18) (aged 25)
Morris Island, South Carolina
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Seal of the United States Board of War.png Union Army
Years of service 1861–1863
Rank Union Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel
Unit 7th New York Militia
2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
Commands held 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

American Civil War:

Robert Gould Shaw (October 10, 1837 – July 18, 1863) was an American soldier in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. Born into a prominent abolitionist family, he accepted command of the first all-black regiment (54th Massachusetts) in the Northeast and encouraged the men to refuse their pay until it was equal to the white troops’ wage. At the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, a beachhead near Charleston, South Carolina, Shaw was killed while leading his men to the parapet of the enemy fort. Although they were overwhelmed and driven back, Shaw’s leadership passed into legend with a unit that inspired tens of thousands more African-Americans to enlist for the Union and contribute to its ultimate victory. Shaw's story was dramatized in the 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick.

Early life and education[edit]

Shaw was born in Boston to abolitionists Francis George and Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, well-known Unitarian philanthropists and intellectuals. The Shaws had the benefit of a large inheritance left by Shaw's merchant grandfather and namesake Robert Gould Shaw (1775–1853), and Shaw himself would have been a member by primogeniture of the Society of the Cincinnati had he survived his father.[1] Shaw had four sisters— Anna, Josephine, Susannah and Ellen[citation needed].

When Shaw was five years old, the family moved to a large estate in West Roxbury, adjacent to Brook Farm. During his teens he traveled and studied for some years in Europe. Later[when?] the family moved to Staten Island, New York, settling among a community of literati and abolitionists, while Shaw attended the lower division of St. John's College (comparable to a modern high school).

From 1856 until 1859 he attended Harvard University, joining the Porcellian Club, but he withdrew before graduating.[citation needed]

American Civil War[edit]

Letter from Robert Gould Shaw to his father from Camp Andrew, May 1861

Early in the American Civil War, Shaw joined the 7th New York Militia as a private and on April 19, 1861, marched down Broadway in lower Manhattan with it to the defense of Washington, D.C.[2] On May 28, 1861, Shaw was formally commissioned as a second lieutenant into Company H of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, with which he fought in the first Battle of Winchester, the battles of Cedar Mountain, and Antietam.[citation needed]

Shaw was approached by his father while in camp in late 1862 to take command of a new all-black regiment. At first he declined the offer, but after careful thought, he accepted the position. Shaw's letters clearly state that he was dubious about a free black unit succeeding, but the dedication of his men deeply impressed him, and he grew to respect them as fine soldiers. On learning that black soldiers would receive less pay than white ones, he joined in with his unit on their boycott until this inequality was rectified. The enlisted men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (and its sister unit, the 55th Massachusetts) refused pay until Congress granted them full back pay at the white pay rate in August 1863.[citation needed]

Shaw was promoted to major on March 31, 1863, and to colonel on April 17.[citation needed]

On June 11, 1863, Shaw wrote about war crimes committed against the citizens of Darien, Georgia, when the civilian population of women and children were fired upon, forced from their homes, their possessions looted, and the town burned. Shaw noted in a letter, "On the way up, Montgomery threw several shells among the plantation buildings, in what seemed to me a very brutal way; for he didn’t know how many women and children there might be." Shaw was initially ordered by Colonel James Montgomery to perform the burning but he refused. Shaw noted in a letter, "The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were, that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old. In theory it may seem all right to some, but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance, I myself don’t like it." He goes on to say, "We are outlawed, and therefore not bound by the rules of regular warfare; but that makes it nonetheless revolting to wreak our vengeance on the innocent and defenceless."[3]

Ironically, the original Scottish founders of Darien had signed the first Petition against the Introduction of Slavery in the colony of Georgia.

Death at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner[edit]

The Storming of Fort Wagner

The 54th Regiment was sent to Charleston, South Carolina to take part in the operations against the Confederates stationed there. On July 18, 1863, along with two brigades of white troops, the 54th assaulted Confederate Battery Wagner. As the unit hesitated in the face of fierce Confederate fire, Shaw led his men into battle by shouting, "Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!" He mounted a parapet and urged his men forward, but was shot through the chest three times and died almost instantly. According to the Colors Sergeant of the 54th, he was shot and killed while trying to lead the unit forward and fell on the outside of the fort.[citation needed]

The victorious Confederates buried him in a mass grave with many of his men, an act they intended as an insult.[4] Following the battle, commanding Confederate General Johnson Hagood returned the bodies of the other Union officers who had died, but left Shaw's where it was. Hagood informed a captured Union surgeon that

"Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial; as it is, I shall bury him in the common trench with the niggers that fell with him."[5]

Although the gesture was intended as an insult by the Confederates, it came to be seen as an honor by Shaw's friends and family that he was buried with his soldiers.

Efforts had been made to recover Shaw's body (which had been stripped and robbed prior to burial). However, his father publicly proclaimed that he was proud to know that his son was interred with his troops, befitting his role as a soldier and a crusader for emancipation.[6] In a letter to the regimental surgeon, Lincoln Stone, Frank Shaw wrote:

We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers....We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has![7]

After the war the Union Army disinterred and reburied all the remains—including, presumably, those of Col. Shaw—at the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina, where their gravestones were marked as "unknown".[citation needed]

Annie Haggerty Shaw, a widow at the age of 28, never remarried. She lived with her family in New York, Lenox, Massachusetts, and abroad, a revered figure and in later years an invalid. She died in 1907 and is buried at the cemetery of Church-on-the Hill in Lenox.[8]

Personal life[edit]


On May 2, 1863, Shaw married Anna Kneeland "Annie" Haggerty (1835–1907) in New York City. They decided to marry before the unit left Boston despite their parents' misgivings. They spent their brief honeymoon at the Haggerty place, Ventfort, in Lenox, Massachusetts.[9]


Shaw is well known for the over 200 letters he wrote to his family and friends during the Civil War.[10] They are currently located in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Digital facsimiles of this collection are publicly available. The book, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, includes most of his letters and a brief biography of Shaw. Peter Burchard also used these letters as the basis for his book One Gallant Rush.


Memorial to Shaw and the 54th Regiment at the National Gallery of Art
Entry for Shaw in Harvard University's Memorial Hall
Shaw memorial at Mount Auburn Cemetery

"There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man. There on horseback among them, in his very habit as he lived, sits the blue-eyed child of fortune, upon whose happy youth every divinity had smiled."—Oration by William James at the exercises in the Boston Music Hall, May 31, 1897, upon the unveiling of the Shaw Monument.[1]



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Boston City Council (1897). Exercises at the dedication of the monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth regiment of the Massachusetts infantry (May 31, 1897). Boston: Municipal Printing Office. 
  2. ^ Burchard, Peter, "One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and his Brave Black Regiment," St. Martin's Press, 1965. ISBN 0-312-04643-X pp. 29-31
  3. ^ Shaw, Robert Gould. "Written in Glory:Letters from the Soldiers and Officers of the 54th Massachusetts". Retrieved 29 April 2013. 
  4. ^ Henry Cabot Lodge. Hero Tales from American History. p. 109. 
  5. ^ Foote 2003, p. 119
  6. ^ Buescher, John. "Robert Gould Shaw." Accessed 12 July 2011.
  7. ^ Foote 2003, p. 120
  8. ^ A History of Ventfort Hall, Cornelia Brooke Gilder and Joan R. Olshansky. Ventfort Hall Association, Lenox, 2002. pp.6–7.
  9. ^ Hawthorne's Lenox, Cornelia Brooke Gilder with Julia Conklin Peters, Hawthorne's Lenox. The History Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59629-406-6 pp.71–76
  10. ^ Duncan, Russell (1992). Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0820314595. 
  11. ^ National Gallery of Art (2011). "Augustus Saint-Gaudens". Artist. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art. 
  12. ^ Augustus Saint-Gaudens (artist). "Shaw Memorial, 1900". The Collection. National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 2012-01-19. 
  13. ^ Paul Laurence Dunbar. "Robert Gould Shaw". Poems. 
  14. ^ Benjamin Griffith Brawley (1922). "My Hero". In James Weldon Johnson. The Book of American Negro Poetry, With an Essay on the Negro’s Creative Genius. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Benson, Richard, Lay This Laurel : An album on the Saint-Gaudens memorial on Boston Common, honoring black and white men together, who served the Union cause with Robert Gould Shaw and died with him July 18, 1863, Eakins Press, 1973. ISBN 0-87130-036-2
  • Cox, Clinton (1991), Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, New York: Scholastic.
  • Duncan, Russell, ed., Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, University of Georgia Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8203-1459-5
  • Duncan, Russell, Where Death and Glory Meet : Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, University of Georgia Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8203-2135-4
  • Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead, Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2003, ISBN 0-374-12617-8
  • Burchard, Peter One Gallant Rush—Robert Gould Shaw & His Brave Black Regiment, St. Martin's Press, 1965. ISBN 0-312-03903-4
  • Emilio, Luis F., A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the 54th Massachusetts, 1863–1865, Da Capo Press, 1894. ISBN 0-306-80623-1
  • The Master by Colm Toibin relates Wilkie James's (younger brother of Henry and William James) participation as an officer in the regiment.

External links[edit]