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Tue, 10.10.1837

Robert Gould Shaw, Military Officer born

Robert Gould Shaw

*Robert Shaw was born on this date in 1837.  He was a white-American officer in the Union Army.  

Robert Gould Shaw II was born in Boston to abolitionists Francis George and Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, who were 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. He had four sisters, Anna, Josephine (Effie), Susanna, and Ellen (Nellie).  

When Shaw was five years old, the family moved to a large estate in West Roxbury, adjacent to Brook Farm, which he visited with his father. During his teens, he traveled and studied for some years in Europe. In 1847, the family moved to Staten Island, New York, settling among a community of abolitionists while Shaw attended the Second Division of St. John's College, a preparatory school, which is now Fordham Prep School in the Bronx at Fordham.

He converted to Catholicism during a trip to Rome, in which he befriended several members of the Oxford Movement, which had begun in the Anglican Church. Robert began his high school-level education at St. John's in 1850, the same year that Joseph Shaw began studying there for entrance into the Jesuits.  In 1851, while Shaw was still at St. John's, his uncle died from tuberculosis. Aged 13, Shaw had a difficult time adjusting to his surroundings and wrote several despondent letters home to his mother.  While at St. John's, he studied Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish, and practiced playing the violin, which he had begun as a young boy.  

He left St. John's in late 1851 before graduation, entered a boarding school in Switzerland where he stayed for two years. Afterward, his father transferred him to a school with a less strict system of discipline in Hanover, Germany, hoping that it would better suit his restless temperament. While in Hanover studying in Europe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist friend of his parents, published her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).

Shaw read the book multiple times and was moved by its plot and anti-slavery attitude. Around the same time, Shaw wrote that his patriotism had been bolstered after encountering several instances of anti-Americanism among some Europeans. He expressed interest to his parents in attending West Point or joining the Navy. Because Shaw had had a longstanding difficulty with taking orders and obeying authority figures, his parents did not view this ambition seriously.  

He returned to the United States in 1856. From 1856 until 1859 he attended Harvard University, but he withdrew before graduating.  After leaving Harvard in 1859, Shaw returned to Staten Island to work with one of his uncles.   With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Shaw volunteered to serve with the 7th New York Militia.  Lincoln's initial call up asked volunteers to make a 90-day commitment, and after three months Shaw's new regiment was dissolved. Following this Shaw joined a newly forming regiment from his home state, the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry.  Shaw met Anna Kneeland Haggerty in New York at an opera party given in 1861 by his sister Susanna before the war began.

The two became engaged just after Christmas in 1862. Despite misgivings by both sets of parents because of the war, they were married May 2, 1863, less than a month before Shaw's regiment moved out. The ceremony was in New York City. The pair spent a brief honeymoon in Lenox, Massachusetts.  On May 28, 1861, Shaw was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the regiment's Company H. Over the next year and a half, he fought with his fellow Massachusetts soldiers in the First Battle of Winchester, the Battle of Cedar Mountain, and at the bloody Battle of Antietam.  

Since the start of the war, abolitionists such as Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew urged enlistment of Blacks as soldiers to fight the Confederacy. This proposal was broadly opposed. Many believed that Black troops would lack discipline, be difficult to train, and would break and run-in battle.  Andrew traveled to Washington, DC in early January 1863 to meet with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who issued an order to Andrew to raise further volunteer regiments to fight for the Union, adding the new recruits "may include persons of African descent, organized into special corps." Andrew immediately set about doing so, and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry began to be formed.  For the unit's officers, Andrew wrote to many individuals prominent in the abolitionist movement, including Morris Hallowell of Philadelphia and Francis Shaw of Boston.  

To command the unit, Andrew already had Shaw's son in mind. Andrew wrote to Francis Shaw about the need.  Carrying the commission, Francis Shaw traveled to Virginia to speak with his son. Shaw was hesitant to take the post, as he did not believe that authorities would send the unit to the front lines, and he did not want to leave his fellow soldiers.  On February 6 he telegraphed his father with his decision. He was 24 years old.

The command came with a colonelcy, the rank commensurate with the position of regimental commander.  Andrew had some difficulty finding enough Black volunteers in Massachusetts to form the regiment. Andrew assured recruits that they would receive the standard pay of 13 dollars a month and that if they were captured, the government of the United States would insist they be treated like any other soldier. The Boston area provided enough recruits to form the regiment's "C" Company. The remainder of the regiment was formed with Black recruits from all across the North. Few were former slaves from the South. Two sons of Frederick Douglass volunteered to serve with the 54th.   Captain Shaw arrived in Boston on February 15, 1863, and immediately assumed his position. He was a strict disciplinarian, determined to train the men to high standards. 

On March 25, 1863 Shaw wrote to his father of his fledgling regiment:  "Everything goes on prosperously. The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than most of the Irish that I have had under my command. There is not the least doubt that we will leave the State with as good a regiment as any that has marched."    Shaw was promoted to major on March 31, 1863, and two weeks later on April 17 was made full colonel.

On April 30 the regiment drew 950 Enfield rifled muskets and swords for non-commissioned officers (NCOs). By May 11 more troops had arrived in Boston than were required to man the regiment. The 55th Massachusetts was begun with the next round of new recruits.   On May 28 Shaw led the men of the 54th through the streets of Boston to the docks, where the regiment boarded a transport steamer and sailed south.  The 54th arrived at Port Royal Island on June 4 and was placed under the overall command of Major General David Hunter. Initially the regiment was used to provide manual labor at the loading docks, but Shaw applied for action.

Four days later his regiment boarded onto transport and was sent to Hilton Head, South Carolina. From there they moved further south to St. Simons Island, Georgia, which served as their base of operations.  On June 11, 1863, the 54th was sent with the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers (who were also Black) for a raid against the town of Darien, Georgia. Overall command of the force was with the senior officer, colonel James Montgomery of the 2nd South Carolina. Upon reaching the town, Montgomery set his troops to looting it. Shaw was outraged by this behavior by Union troops.  He ordered his troops to limit their seizures to those items that would be useful for the camp and committed only one company to the task.  

After the town had been emptied of all valuables and livestock, Montgomery told Shaw, "I shall burn this town." To Shaw the burning of the town appeared to serve no military purpose, and he knew it would create a great hardship to its residents. In a letter to his family he recalled, "I told him I did not want to take the responsibility of it, and he was only too happy to take all of it on his own shoulders." Montgomery had the town burned to the ground.   After the regiment's return to camp, Shaw wrote to X Corps Assistant Adjutant General Lieutenant-Colonel Charles G. Halpine, seeking clarification of what was required of him.

He asked if Montgomery was acting under orders from General Hunter, stating in part "I am perfectly willing to burn any place which resists, or gives some reason for such a proceeding, but it seems to me barbarous to turn women and children adrift in that way; and if I am only assisting Colonel Montgomery in a private enterprise of his own, it is very distasteful to me." It is not clear if Shaw ever received an answer from Halpine, but Montgomery was in fact carrying out a policy supported by Hunter. 

Colonel Shaw and the 54th Regiment were placed under the command of General Quincy Adams Gillmore and sent to Charleston, South Carolina to take part in the second attempt to take Charleston. To do so, they would have to capture Fort Wagner, which defended the southern approach to the harbor.  At the battle on July 18, 1863, the 54th approached the fort in the late afternoon and then waited out of range for a night assault. After a heavy bombardment from the sea the 54th charged forward to take the Confederate batteries. Shaw led his men into battle, shouting "Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!" The 54th crossed the moat and scaled the muddy hill of the outer wall. With the cessation of the naval bombardment the largely intact Confederate garrison left their bomb-proofs and resumed their positions on the walls. In the face of heavy fire, the 54th hesitated. Shaw mounted a parapet and urged his men forward but was shot through the chest three times.

The fighting continued until 10 p.m. when the Union forces withdrew, having suffered heavy losses.  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, for burial in a mass grave with the black soldiers. Hagood told a captured Union surgeon that "Had he [Shaw] been in command of white troops ..." he would have returned Shaw's body, as was customary for officers, instead of burying it with the fallen black soldiers. Although the gesture was intended as an insult by Hagood, Shaw's friends and family believed it was an honor for him to be buried with his soldiers.

Efforts had been made to recover Shaw's body (which had been stripped and robbed prior to burial). His father publicly proclaimed that he was proud to know that his son was buried with his troops, befitting his role as a soldier and a crusader for emancipation.   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 bodyguard he has!  

Two and half years older than Shaw, "Annie" Shaw was widowed at the age of 28. She spent many years after the war living abroad in Europe, returning in later years when her health failed.  She spent the last two years of her life living at her former family house, and died in 1907, never having remarried. She is buried at the cemetery of Church-on-the Hill in Lenox.  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. Their gravestones were marked as "unknown".  Shaw's sword had been stolen from the first grave site but was recovered in 1865 and returned to his parents. It disappeared after being passed down within the family. In June 2017 it was discovered in a family attic of Mary Minturn Wood and brother Robert Shaw Wood, descendants of Shaw's sister Susanna. They donated it to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

More than a century after the war, the Fifty-fourth remains the most famous Black regiment of the war, due largely to the popularity of the 1989 movie "Glory,” which narrates Shaw's military story including, the attack on Fort Wagner.


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