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Robert Gould Shaw

Robert Gould Shaw

Born October 10, 1837
Boston, Massachusetts
Died July 18, 1863
Morris Island, South Carolina

Union colonel of the all-black Fifty-Fourth
Massachusetts Regiment

Led the assault on Fort Wagner in
South Carolina that proved the courage
of black soldiers in combat

Robert Gould Shaw became a hero as commanding officer of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment—the first all-black regiment to be organized in the North. Black men were not allowed to join the Union Army in the early days of the Civil War. Even when the law was changed in mid-1862, many people still doubted whether black men could be good soldiers. Prominent black leaders and abolitionists (people who wanted to eliminate slavery) organized the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts and selected Shaw as its leader in the hope of changing people's views. In July 1863, the regiment led an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold guarding the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. The bravery of Shaw and the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts during the assault convinced people across the North that black soldiers deserved to fight for the freedom of their race.

Son of wealthy abolitionists

Robert Gould Shaw was born into a life of wealth and privilege on October 10, 1837, in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents, Francis George Shaw and Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, were both descended from early American colonists. They put their money and influence to work as social reformers. One of the issues that concerned them deeply was slavery.

Black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people beginning in the 1600s. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slave-holders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country because it played an important role in the South's economy and culture.

The Shaws believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish (put an end to) it. They frequently spoke out on the subject and held meetings of fellow abolitionists at their home. As a result, Robert was exposed to the arguments against slavery from an early age.

Educated in Europe

When Robert was nine years old, his family moved to Staten Island, New York. At this time, Staten Island was a rural area populated by a few wealthy families who lived on large estates. Shaw loved being outdoors and exploring the fields and woods near his home. He attended a small private school there, and then went to boarding school for a short time. In 1848, Shaw went to Europe with his family. He lived there for most of the next eight years, studying in Switzerland and Germany.

In 1856, Shaw returned to the United States and enrolled at Harvard University. He found the schoolwork easy compared to his education in Europe, so he spent most of his two years there enjoying an active social life. He joined a boating club and played violin in string quartets. He also struggled with the question of what he wanted to do with his life. Hoping to do more traveling, he took a job in the New York City offices of an overseas trading company owned by his uncle in 1859. He did not like the work, however, and worried that he lacked the ability to move up into management.

Joins the Union Army

By 1860, the issue of slavery had caused a huge division between the Northern and Southern sections of the country. Thanks to the efforts of Shaw's parents and other abolitionists, growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.

This situation exploded when Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) was elected president of the United States. Since Lincoln w as a Northerner who opposed slavery, the Southern states believed that the nation's government could no longer represent their interests. In early 1861, several Southern states seceded (withdrew) from the United States and formed a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. The two sides soon went to war.

Shaw was glad when the Civil War began because he was tired of seeing the North compromise with the South. "As for making concessions [compromises], it is only patching up the affair for a year or two, when it would break out worse than ever," he stated. He also felt that force was justified to settle the issue of slavery. When the Southern states began to secede, Lincoln called for volunteers to come defend the U.S. capital in Washington, D.C. Shaw immediately joined the Seventh New York National Guard as a private. This military unit was made up almost entirely of young men like Shaw, from wealthy New England families. Huge crowds of people lined the streets to see them off on their trip to Washington. They ended up being the first regiment to arrive in the capital. But Shaw's first experience of military life did not prove very exciting. He spent most of his time doing chores during his ninety-day term of service.

Becomes an officer in the Second Massachusetts

When his time with the Seventh New York ended, Shaw applied for a commission as an officer in the Second Massachusetts Regiment. Under the direction of Colonel George H. Gordon, Shaw learned military discipline and his self-confidence increased. He finally seemed to have found something meaningful to do with his life. Within a short time, the Second Massachusetts began to see action in the war. They were sent to the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia, where they engaged in a number of skirmishes (brief fights) with Confederate forces under the command of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–1863; see entry).

During breaks in the fighting, Shaw began thinking and talking with other officers about the wisdom of using black soldiers, and especially former slaves, in the Union Army. At this point, Federal law prohibited black men from joining the army. Many Northern whites wanted to keep it that way. Some whites claimed that the purpose of the Civil War was to restore the Union rather than to settle the issue of slavery. And since the war was not about slavery, they felt that there was no need to change the law so that black people could join the fight. Another reason that many Northern whites did not want black men to be allowed to join the army was deep-seated racial prejudice. Some whites believed that they were superior to blacks and did not want to fight alongside them. Finally, some Northerners worried that allowing blacks to become soldiers would convince the border states—four states that allowed slavery but remained part of the Union anyway—to join the Confederacy.

Black leaders and white abolitionists in the North were outraged at the policies and prejudices that prevented black men from fighting in the Civil War. Free black men from the North had tried to enlist from the earliest days of the conflict. They wanted to help the Union forces put an end to slavery. They also believed that proving their patriotism and courage on the field of battle would help improve their position in American society. Many Northern blacks signed petitions asking the Federal government to change its rules, but the government refused. In the meantime, thousands of blacks—both freemen and escaped or liberated slaves—provided unofficial help for the cause by serving as cooks, carpenters, laborers, nurses, scouts, and servants for the Union troops.

Shaw and some of his fellow officers believed that allowing black men to become soldiers could only help the Union war effort. "Isn't it extraordinary that the Government won't make use of the instrument that would finish the war sooner than anything else—the slaves?" Shaw wrote. "What a lick it would be to [the Confederates] to call on all the blacks in the country to come and enlist in our army! They would probably make a fine army after a little drill, and could certainly be kept under better discipline than our independent Yankees [Northerners]!"

In September 1862, Shaw's regiment joined a large Union force under General George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry) along Antietam Creek in Maryland. On September 17, they fought a vicious day-long battle against Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry). The Battle of Antietam killed or wounded more than twenty-three thousand Union and Confederate soldiers, making it the single bloodiest day in Civil War history. Although the fighting ended without a clear winner, Lincoln used it as an excuse to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. This document stated his intention to free all the slaves in Confederate territory on January 1, 1863. In addition, it declared that black men would officially be allowed to serve in the Union Army.

Takes command of the all-black Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts

In January 1863, the United States government authorized Governor John Andrew (1818–1867) of Massachusetts to put together a regiment of black soldiers from his state. Since there were not enough black men living in Massachusetts at that time, Andrew called upon prominent abolitionists and black leaders to recruit men from all over the North to form the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts would be the first all-black regiment to represent a state in battle during the Civil War.

Many white people in the North were opposed to allowing black soldiers to fight for the Union Army, so Governor Andrew and his recruiters had a lot to lose if the regiment failed. "Andrew wanted to prove that black men would fight—which would in turn prove that they were men and thus entitled to be free citizens," Russell Duncan wrote in his introduction to Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. "Andrew understood the importance of making the venture a success, and he staked his reputation and career upon his conviction [belief] that blacks would fight and fight well."

Since black men were not allowed to become officers in the Union Army, the governor selected several white men to lead the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. Andrew knew that the regiment would receive a great deal of publicity, so he chose these officers carefully. In February, he wrote a letter asking Shaw to become colonel of the regiment. "I am about to raise a Colored Regiment in Massachusetts. This I cannot but regard as the most important corps [military unit] to be organized during the whole war," the governor wrote. "I am desirous to have for its officers . . . young men of military experience, of firm Anti-Slavery principles, ambitious, superior to vulgar contempt of color [about common prejudices about blacks], and having faith in the capacity of Colored men for military service."

Shaw's father delivered the message to him personally. The young soldier agonized over the decision. At first, Shaw questioned whether he could handle the responsibility. He knew that leading the first all-black regiment from the North would be a difficult job, and that many people would criticize his efforts and hope that he would fail. In addition, Shaw felt very close to his current regiment. Facing battle together had created a bond of trust that he was reluctant to break. After considering all these factors, Shaw informed his father that he would refuse Governor Andrew's offer. But then his mother wrote him a letter saying that she was bitterly disappointed in him, and his commanding officer expressed faith in his abilities as a leader. As a result, Shaw decided it was his duty to lead the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. He wrote to Andrew a few days later and accepted the job.

Gains respect for his black soldiers

When Shaw arrived in Boston to begin training the recruits for the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, he had never been around black men before. At first, he tended to believe some of the stereotypes (a generalized, oversimplified view of an ethnic group's behavior) he had heard about black people. But as he got to know more of his soldiers personally, he gained a great deal of respect and affection for them. "Never before around African Americans, Shaw changed through contact with them. He still held himself above blacks and formally addressed them, but he began to respect their abilities," Duncan noted. "Soon, Shaw became attached to his men and defended them strongly against outside abuse. He had been forced by their actions to question, then conquer, his own misconceptions. They proved their intelligence, commitment to order, pluck [courage], and adaptability to military life. As Shaw changed, he won the respect of his men."

On May 2, 1863, Shaw married Anna Kneeland Haggerty. A few weeks later, she was on hand to watch the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts take part in a ceremony to mark the end of their training. Many prominent abolitionists and military leaders were in the crowd. At the end of the ceremony, Governor Andrew handed Shaw a flag and said, "Wherever its folds shall be unfurled, it will mark the path of glory." Immediately afterward, the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts shipped out to Hilton Head, an island off the coast of South Carolina.

For the first month, Shaw's regiment took part in several raids along the Southern coast. On one of these raids, they accompanied a regiment made up of former slaves under the command of Colonel James Montgomery. The two regiments entered the town of Darien, Georgia, and took all the food and supplies they could find. Afterward, Montgomery ordered his troops to burn the town. Shaw protested the order, but Montgomery's troops destroyed the town anyway. Southern newspapers picked up the story and criticized the black regiments, calling them "vandals" and "thieves." Even though Shaw had not participated in the destruction, he ended up sharing the blame.

By early July, Shaw was eager to take his troops into battle and prove what they could do. "I want to get my men along side of white troops, and into a good fight, if there is to be one," he stated. Around this time, the Union military leaders decided to concentrate on capturing the port city of Charleston, South Carolina. General George Strong asked Shaw to bring his regiment up the coast to help implement the plan. On the way, the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts stopped on James Island and saw their first real action. In a coordinated effort with white soldiers, they helped beat back a Confederate attack.

Leads Union assault on Fort Wagner

The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts finally arrived at Charleston Harbor on July 18, 1863. The regiment was chosen to lead an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold that guarded the entrance to the harbor. The soldiers had marched all of the previous day and night, along beaches and through swamps, in terrible heat and humidity. But even though they were tired and hungry by the time they reached Charleston, they still proudly took their positions at the head of the assault.

As evening came, Shaw led the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts in a charge toward the fort. They were immediately hit with heavy artillery and musket fire from the Confederate troops inside the fort. Shaw was killed in the fighting, along with nearly half of his six hundred officers and men. But the remaining troops kept moving forward, crossed the moat (deep ditch sometimes filled with water) surrounding the fort, and climbed up the stone wall. They were eventually forced to retreat when reinforcements did not appear in time, but by then they had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.

The next day, Confederate troops dug a mass grave and buried Shaw's body along with his fallen black soldiers, despite the fact that the bodies of high-ranking officers were usually returned by both sides. The Confederates intended this action to be an insult, since they believed that whites were superior to blacks and thus deserved a better burial. Several weeks later, when Union forces finally captured Fort Wagner, a Union officer offered to search for the grave and recover Shaw's body. But Shaw's father refused the offer. "We hold that a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen," he wrote.

Even though the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts did not succeed in capturing Fort Wagner, their brave performance in battle was considered a triumph. Newspapers throughout the North carried the story, even those that had opposed the enlistment of blacks in the Union Army. People were forced to admit that black men were just as capable as whites of fighting and dying for the Union and freedom. By the end of 1863, sixty new black regiments were being formed across the North. The success of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts and other black regiments not only helped the North win the Civil War, but also led to greater acceptance of blacks in American society.

Shortly after Shaw's death, Governor Andrew began organizing a memorial to him and his fallen soldiers in Boston. He hired the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) to design the memorial. The artist finally unveiled his work in 1897, at a ceremony attended by many black Civil War veterans. It shows Shaw on horseback, surrounded by his black troops, as they march southward to fight for freedom and equality for people of all races. "There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man," philosopher William James (1842–1910) said at the dedication. "There on horseback, among them . . . sits the blue-eyed child of fortune, upon whose happy youth every divinity had smiled. Onward they move together, a single resolution kindled in their eyes."

Where to Learn More

Burchard, Peter. We'll Stand by the Union: Robert Gould Shaw and the Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Duncan, Russell, ed. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Duncan, Russell. Where Death and Glory Meet: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

National Gallery of Art. Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment. [Online] http://www.nga.gov/feature/shaw/home.htm (accessed on October 16, 1999).

Smith, Marion W. Beacon's Hill Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. New York: Carlton Press, 1986.

Smith, Marion W. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw: A Pictorial Companion. New York: Carlton Press, 1990.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.


William H. Carney, the First Black Soldier Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor

William H. Carney was born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. When his owner died in 1854, he and his family received their freedom. They soon moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, because they felt that black people were not safe in the South. When the call went out for black men to join the Union Army, he was among the first to enlist. He joined the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment in February 1863 for a three-year term. He quickly impressed Colonel Shaw and the other officers with his bravery and strength.

Carney played a leading role in the assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863. As the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts moved forward, artillery and gunfire exploded all around them. Many of his fellow soldiers were killed. At one point, Carney found the American flag lying on the ground. The man who had been carrying it was dead. He picked up the flag and continued his charge across the moat and up the wall of the fort. He caught up with Shaw just as his commanding officer was fatally shot. He then stuck the flagpole he was carrying into the ground and crouched on the top of the wall, firing repeatedly at Confederates inside the fort. He kept on fighting even though he received serious wounds to his chest, arms, and legs.

As the Union troops began to fall back from the assault, Carney limped back to his regiment. He tried to raise their spirits and convince them to return to the fort. But after seeing his wounds, the officer in charge told him he had done enough already. Carney replied: "I have only done my duty, the old flag never touched the ground." He then handed the flag over to the officer and stumbled alone to the field hospital.

After recovering from his wounds, Carney received a discharge from the Union Army. He lived in the Boston area with his wife, Susanna Williams, after the war. He worked for the city as the superintendent of street lighting and as a mail carrier. In May 1900, Carney received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at Fort Wagner. He thus became the first African American to win the nation's highest military honor. Carney died in 1908 following an elevator accident that crushed his leg.


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