The Biography of
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Laid Down His Life for a Race"
Gould Shaw is best remembered in history as the brave
colonel who led the 54th Massachusetts in their fearless
charge at Fort Wagner. But what makes him an
extraordinary individual lies beyond this noble deed. In
what would be a few months with the regiment, Shaw's
remarkable personal growth found him transformed from
"an ordinary mortal" to a compassionate and
selfless leader who "laid down his life" for
his men and "for a race." This is what makes
him a true hero.
Prosperous and Humanitarian Upbringing
Robert Gould Shaw was born
on October 10, 1837 in Boston, Massachusetts, the second
child and only son of Francis George and Sarah Blake
(Sturgis) Shaw. As the grandchild of successful merchants
who had amassed millions of dollars in the trade
industry, Robert enjoyed a comfortable upbringing with
his four sisters. From the early years of his sheltered
childhood, he demonstrated a fondness for family,
companionship, and social events.
When Robert was four, his father, a merchant and
part-time lawyer, retired at age 32 to pursue a literary
career and philanthropic interests, and to spend more
time with his family. Francis relocated the family to the
country near Brook Farm, an experimental commune
inhabited by intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Living in this
area until he was nine, Robert was introduced to these
freethinkers' beliefs as well as the open-minded ideals
of the local Unitarian church members. He began to
develop an understanding of abolitionism, a cause
supported by his parents who were prominent and
well-respected humanitarians, social reformers, and
anti-slavery activists in their community. However at
this young age Robert did not yet fully embrace his
parents' philosophies on life.
Following the decline of Brook Farm, the Shaws lived at
residences on the East Coast and overseas in Europe.
Robert briefly attended a preparatory school in New York,
with lessons in languages and violin. At a boarding
school in Switzerland, he studied math, various
languages, and violin and piano. His life was miserable
at these institutions, because he missed his family and
disliked authority and discipline. Seeking diversion in
Europe, Robert frequented the theater, opera, concerts,
and parties. He widely toured the continent with friends,
much to his parents' displeasure. Away from home, he
began to ponder his own identity and questioned his
parents' principles. But through his wayward adolescent
years, he still felt close to his mother and siblings.
In 1856, Robert passed the entrance exam to Harvard but
did not excel in academics, preferring to spend more time
on extracurricular activities such as sports and a
musical group in which he played violin. Initially
insecure about his diminutive stature at five-feet,
five-inches, he gained more confidence when he was
elected president for many clubs in which he
participated. Yet he still remained uncertain about his
career goals and therefore was not disappointed when he
left the university in the spring of 1859, after the
Panic of 1857 found the family fortune cut in half. At
first Robert was enthusiastic about working for Henry P.
Sturgis and Co., his uncle's mercantile office in New
York City. But half a year later, he became bored with
the daily monotony of inventory.
New Family and a New Life
1860, after Abraham Lincoln became President and the
Southern states seceded from the Union, Robert enlisted
with the Seventh New York National Guard. This exclusive
military regiment was comprised of sons from New York
society who were intent upon proving their worthiness and
patriotism. The Seventh sprung to the call immediately
following the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. In
their naïve optimism, the young men believed that the
conflict would be brief and so agreed to volunteer their
services for only 30 days. After the unit disbanded,
Robert decided to remain in the military. On May 10, 1861
he obtained an officer's commission as a second
lieutenant with the Second Massachusetts, a newly-formed
infantry, and for the next 20 months these men were
comrades and family to him.
Life with the Second Massachusetts gradually changed
Shaw's outlook on the war and his own existence. Though
as an officer he was able to attend elegant parties and
eat and sleep well, for the first time he was among men
of other social classes with whom he had to depend upon
for his survival. Shaw quickly adapted to his new
environments at each camp and, being fond of traveling,
took in the vistas of Virginia and Maryland with great
pleasure while on the march. Through the daily routine of
drilling and soldiering he began to appreciate
discipline, having witnessed the success of regiments
that maintained strict order. Given a goal in the army,
he now began to feel more alive with a purpose. But he
also yearned for action on the battlefield to prove his
Shaw's wish would soon be fulfilled. During the
Shenandoah Valley Campaign, the Second was ordered to
cover the retreat from Strasburg, Virginia in the battle
at Front Royal on May 23, 1862. In this engagement Shaw
received a minor wound and was recognized by his men for
exhibiting courage and a cool composure during the fray.
But the Second would not experience their real baptism of
fire until the Northern Virginia Campaign at the Cedar
Mountain wheatfield, August 9, 1862. The regiment
suffered terrible losses and would be tested again on
September 17 at the Battle of Antietam, considered the
bloodiest single day in the war. Shaw, now a captain in
the unit, received a minor wound but felt the excitement
of the battle as never before. However, after enduring
the horrors of this event, he wished more than ever that
the war would end.
The autumn and winter of 1862 found Shaw and the Second
Massachusetts inactive, as they were not ordered to
participate in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December.
During this lull, Shaw briefly entertained thoughts about
joining the cavalry, thenever vacillating between
ideasdecided to continue the fight with the Second,
determined to remain in service until the end of the war.
Missing home and family, his thoughts also turned to
Annie Haggerty, a young woman from a prosperous family in
Lenox, Massachusetts, who had won his heart prior to the
war. In late November he proposed to her in a letter and
they planned a wedding early next year.
Regiment of Black Soldiers
the Federal victory in the Battle of Antietam, President
Lincoln had declared a preliminary Emancipation
Proclamation, warning the Confederacy that if they did
not return to the Union their slaves would be freed. The
proclamation, which was officially issued on January 1,
1863, liberated more than three million slaves in the
Southern states, changing the dynamics of the war.
With the war soon to be entering its third year, and the
ranks being depleted due to battlefield casualties and
desertions, the Union army was in great need of new
recruits. By the end of January 1863, Lincoln authorized
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to allow black men to
enlist in volunteer regiments. Though the idea of arming
black men was controversial and unpopular among many
white soldiers and citizens, this move found great favor
amongst the abolitionists with whom the topic already had
Early next month, pro-abolitionist Governor John A.
Andrew of Massachusetts executed his plan to form a black
volunteer regiment. This unit, the 54th Massachusetts,
would be the first of its kind in the Northern states.
Governor Andrew approached Shaw to lead the new regiment
as its colonel, because of his family's powerful and
respectable status in society and their principles on
anti-slavery. At first Robert was reluctant to leave the
Second Massachusetts, unsure about assuming this great
responsibility and his ability to live up to everyone's
expectations. He initially turned down the governor's
offer then reconsidered, feeling that his mother would be
greatly disappointed in him if he refused. Accepting the
colonelcy, on February 15 he arrived in Boston to assist
with the formation of the regiment.
The most ardent speaker urging black men to enlist in the
54th was Frederick Douglass, a great orator, writer and
social reformer who, born a slave and having escaped to
freedom, would help to emancipate thousands of slaves
during his lifetime. Borrowing a line from English
Romantic poet, Lord George Gordon Byron, Douglass
proclaimed to black men: "'Who would be free
themselves must strike the blow.'...I urge you to fly to
arms and smite to death the power that would bury the
Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.
This is your golden opportunity." To encourage the
men and show his support, Douglass sent his sons Lewis
and Charles to be enlisted.
From February through March, Shaw organized and drilled
the recruits at Camp Meigs near Boston. As a commanding
officer he was a strict disciplinarian, largely out of
his concern that the failure of this experimental
regiment would bring ridicule and shame to all, damaging
future chances for more regiments of its kind. The men
were issued uniforms and housed in wooden barracks. Shaw
ensured that they were properly nourished and furnished
with necessary supplies. However, despite his provision
for the comfort of his men, he initially harbored some
prejudices about their mannerisms. Shaw supported the
Emancipation Proclamation and wished for the abolishment
of slavery, but in his early days as their officer he did
not see his men as individuals. Twenty-five years old and
lacking in wisdom and experience, he had yet to learn
about members of a race outside of his own. By the end of
March, Shaw was enlightened on the intelligence of the
many educated men in his unit. He also admired their
resolve and relative ease in adjusting to military life.
As Shaw gradually began to treat his men with more
respect, they respected him more in return.
May 2, Robert and Annie were married in New York City,
and not long afterwards he was ordered to return to camp.
Major General David Hunter, commander of the Department
of the South, had requested the 54th's presence at his
headquarters on the island of Hilton Head, South
Carolina. Impressed with the unit, Hunter dispatched the
54th to serve alongside the Second South Carolina, a
contraband regiment under the command of Colonel James
Montgomery, an abolitionist from Kansas.
Early in June, the 54th reported to Colonel Montgomery on
St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia. With
Montgomery's troops they embarked on an
"expedition" to Darien. Carrying out orders
from General Hunter, Montgomery had his men pillage then
burn the town with the assistance of one of Shaw's
companies. Appalled by this barbarism, Shaw protested but
had to yield to higher authority. The incident plagued
him until the end of his days. The negative publicity
that resulted from the raid made Shaw twice as determined
to prove the validity and capability of the 54th as a
competent, honorable regiment.
Following the destruction of Darien, General Hunter was
relieved of his command and replaced by General Quincy A.
Gillmore. The 54th remained with the Second S.C. for a
while, and Shaw came to appreciate Montgomery as a
well-spoken, religious man devoted to his cause, though
he also found him repulsive for his fanaticism. Colonel
Shaw invested much time and energy looking after his men
and becoming better acquainted with them. He wrote to
Governor Andrew arguing against the pay cut Stanton had
imposed on black regiments on June 4, 1863. Shaw insisted
that his men should be mustered out of the army if they
could not be paid equally as white soldiers at 13 dollars
a month. On a social level, he attended one of the men's
praise meetings and took a genuine, unbiased interest in
the song and dance of the performers.
At the beginning of July, a plan to attack Charleston was
launched into action. Capturing the affluent harbor town
would be a major victory for the Union, because of the
town's importance to the Confederacy and its strategic
location at the juncture of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers.
Should this campaign succeed, the Federals would also
regain possession of Fort Sumter. Upon discovering that
the 54th was not to be included in the campaign, Shaw
wrote to his brigade commander, General George C. Strong,
expressing his disappointment. He had high hopes for his
regiment and wanted them to engage in battle alongside
white troops so they could prove their worth as soldiers
and be proud.
The men would finally be put to the test on July 16,
eight days after being ordered to James Island. The
Rebels made an attack on the Federal army and Shaw's men
staunchly resisted the blow and prevailed. They had, as
Shaw wished, fought hard and fought well with white
soldiers against white Confederates. But there would be
no rest for the weary. That night, the 54th received
orders to march through the treacherous mud flats. Bound
for General Strong's headquarters on Morris Island, just
within reach of Charleston, the regiment had to traverse
one small island after another to arrive at their
destination. The following day, tired and hungry, the men
lingered for hours in the scorching heat awaiting a
steamer to Folly's Island. Just before midnight they were
on board, and on July 18 Shaw reported to Strong's
The colonel was presented a great challenge and
opportunity: Would he have his men lead the charge to
attack the indomitable Fort Wagner? Only a few days ago
other troops had attempted to take the fort and failed.
However, if the 54th could succeed, a significant victory
would be celebrated by all in the Union. To this request,
Shaw answered a firm "yes." He would place his
duty and loyalty to country, family, and regiment above
his own personal desires. For deep within he held a
secret fear that this would be his last engagement.
That evening, the brave colonel led his men in the charge
along the beach to the fort, as shells and shot rained
down relentlessly on the gallant 54th. Though their lines
were mowed down and bodies strewn across the sand, he
rallied the surviving men onward to scale the walls of
Fort Wagner. As Shaw reached the top of the parapet, he
was struck by a bullet and killed. The following day, his
body was buried in the sand along with those of his men.
The mission to take the fort did not succeed, but the
efforts they made and the significance of what was
achieved in that fateful event would not be forgotten.
Used in Writing this Essay
American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War,
by Bruce Catton, American Heritage, New York, NY, 1988.
Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, by Russell Duncan, The
University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1992.
Don't Know Much About the Civil War: Everything You
Need to Know About America's Greatest Conflict but Never
Learned, by Kenneth C. Davis, William Morrow and
Company, Inc., New York, NY, 1996.
A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from
African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1681-1865,
by Edwin S. Redkey, Cambridge University Press, New York,
New York, 1992.
Index to Shaw's Pages
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