Col. Robert G. Shaw, hero of the Massachusetts 54th

Photo: Kurz & Allison

VIENNA, Va. — Today marks the birthday of one of the Union’s true heroes, yet if one examines his upper class family and life, it is hard to envision the way it turned out.

The movie “Glory,” tells the story behind the deeds of Robert Gould Shaw. Born on Oct. 10, 1837, to a well-known Boston family, Robert was the only son of Francis Gould and Sarah Sturgis Shaw.  Part of the most socially conscious of Bostonians of the time, the Shaws traveled in the highest of social and literary circles, counting among their friends authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the up and coming author, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Robert Shaw and the 54th Regiment memorial

Robert Shaw and the 54th Regiment memorial

The family was one of substantial wealth and in the manner of those with means, their social consciousness made them avid and vocal leaders in the abolitionist movement, which was transmitted early on to their son. They were members of the Unitarian Church, which also supported abolition.

When young Robert was 9 years old, the family moved to Staten Island, NY, where the boy was enrolled at St. John Catholic school, though it appears he was never a practicing Catholic. Later the family moved to Europe where Robert attended school followed by three years at Harvard, never receiving his planned for business degree.

Instead, his uncle had become wealthy in the mercantile business and for awhile Robert worked for him, although it seems he was no more fond of that pursuit than he had been within the ivy covered walls of Harvard.

With war looming on the horizon, Shaw felt that being in the military and actually seeing action was what he wanted. He enlisted in the 7th New York Regiment and became part of the group that marched to Washington to defend the Capitol, should it be needed.

That unit only served for 30 days, but by then Shaw was fond of the military life and went with the Second Massachusetts Infantry as a First Lieutenant. It was during this time that he got his wish to see action.

Serving with the Second Massachusetts for two years, he rose to the rank of Captain, and was wounded at Antietam or Sharpsburg. It seems that the more he fought and served, the more he liked the military life. About that time, the Union had decided that it could be effective if they were to raise black troops and the 54th Massachusetts came into existence.

There was a concerted effort to bring young men of abolitionist families into more officer positions so as to provide an empathetic core to the new troops. Secretary of War Edward Stanton felt that only white officers should be given command of the “colored” units, and Col. Shaw was one of the hand-picked leaders, together with Lt. Col. Norwood Hallowell, his second in command, chosen to lead these new troops.

The troops themselves came from the strongest, healthiest black recruits that could be found.  This elite group was a result of having too many recruits applying for the regiment.  In order to pare down the numbers, the men were subjected to rigorous medical examinations, resulting in an extremely healthy and fit regiment. The 54th trained at Camp Meigs near Boston where a great deal of moral support, in the form of warm clothing collected for the men along with battle flags and colors being prepared, all of which was engendered for the new soldiers. 

Additional monies were raised so that a regimental band could be put together to show the spirit of the 54th.

Shaw initially evidenced some skepticism regarding the usage of black troops; being raised an abolitionist was one thing, but putting men’s lives in jeopardy defended by free blacks was another subject altogether. He was soon to learn that the black troops could and would fight as hard and as bravely as any other soldiers.

The 54th arrived at Hilton Head, SC on the third of June, 1863 as part of Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s Department of the South. After being with Col. James Montgomery in an attack on the town of Darien, GA, Shaw saw something he did not like when Montgomery ordered his troops to loot every store in the town, and then to burn them. Shaw did not allow his troops to participate. The unruly actions troubled the young leader to the extent that he wrote to the governor as well as the adjutant general of the department, expressing his displeasure.

Eventually it came to Shaw’s attention that while the black troops were fighting and acting as their white counterparts in every way, they were receiving approximately one-half of the pay given their white counterparts.  This was contrary to what they were told upon enterting the service when they were promised equal pay to the white troops, which was $13.00 and subsistence per month.

However, when payday arrived, they learned that their pay was only $10.00 less $3.00 for clothing allowance, which netted them $7.00 for the month’s service. To say Shaw was angry at this inequity is perhaps an understatement. He felt strongly that it should be equal pay for equal service, and was successful in persuading the black troops to simply refuse any pay until the matter was resolved equally.

This stand-off would take eighteen months before all was settled. This battle of equality was bolstered with the additional urging of the higher ups and action by Congress. When Congress finally acted to correct the situation, the equal pay applied only to those who were free men as of April 1864. The ones who qualified finally received the funds on September 28, 1864.

Many people today will find this situation difficult to comprehend. In a North far more open to blacks, and not carrying the automatic mantle of prejudice given the South, this inequity is indeed strange.

Then began the attack on Fort Wagner on Morris Island on July 18, 1863.

Shaw’s troops were given the “honor” of leading the charge. Shaw was no one’s fool, and he believed that it would result in great loss of life. Looking at the battle site and the impossibility of success by the attackers in the blinding hindsight today affords, one has to question why one of the few black regiments was “selected” to lead the charge.

The night before the planned attack, Shaw contacted a newspaper reporter, Edward L. Pierce, who wrote for the New York Daily News, giving him several letters as well as various papers to deliver for him, should he not survive the next day’s attack. Shaw came back to his regiment, to his trusted and trained men, and led the charge across the open beach toward the fort, receiving sustained and heavy fire from the Confederate defenders.

It is said that some of them resented the fact that black troops were being used, and the response to the charge was more vicious than usual. Faced with withering fire, the men began to waver, and it was then that Robert Gould Shaw acted in a manner to assure immortality.

Grabbing the colors, he led the men through a ditch, and over its surrounding wall, jumping to the parapet of the fort, colors in hand, he yelled “Forward, 54th!” Immediately shots rang out and he was shot through the heart, dying instantly. He was 25 years old.

Regardless of the bravery of the 54th Massachusetts, the Confederate forces prevailed, and the black troops were cut down like so much corn in the field. They suffered some 272 casualties, which amounted to just under fifty percent of the total manpower.

When Shaw fell, some of the enemy troops were sufficiently angered by the presence of the black troops that they stripped Shaw’s body down to his under garments and threw it into a grave along with the dead black troops. While it appears that they hoped that Shaw’s memory would be forever soiled, it had the reverse effect. After attempts by some of the Union officers to recover his body, Shaw’s father sent word that they should stop these attempts. He felt that his son would prefer to lie with the men he had led into battle.

Years later in 1897, the renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gauden did a wonderful tribute to Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th, which now stands in Boston, Mass. opposite the State House on the commons. Its numerous friezes portray the black soldiers in various poses, for a remarkable depiction, as they surround the figure of Robert Gould Shaw on his horse.

The movie “Glory” played a substantial part in bringing the story of the 54th Massachusetts to the fore front, and insured their courageous status and that of their brave young leader, for all time.

In an interesting sideline, the week before the Fort Wagner attack coincides with the week of the Draft Riots in New York. The dock workers and laborers on the lower East Side were angry at the idea of the United States drafting black soldiers, and white workers attacked the black laborers and dockworkers, beating, torturing and lynching them.

They held the blacks responsible for the war and this was their way of getting revenge on those blacks who had agreed to fight for the Union.

The movie “Glory,” starring Matthew Broderick in the title role, played a substantial part in bringing the story of the 54th Massachusetts to the forefront, and insured their courageous status and that of their brave young leader, for all time.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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