*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
In the play Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare puts these words into a character’s mouth: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” It could be argued that all three of these apply to Robert Gould Shaw.
Shaw was born in Boston on October 10, 1837. He “was born into one of the nation’s richest families. He had all the advantages of the fortunate— the easy life, famous friends, the best schools, finest clothes, widest travels, ripest food, and richest drink the world could offer. Yet, he died with sand in his mouth and sword in hand face down among the sons of the unfortunate and despised.” (Blue-Eyed, p. 2) The family were staunch abolitionists; indeed, they socialized with both William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Garrison was the editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and Stowe the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The parents joined “the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1838, and by 1842, Francis [the father] was working with the Boston Vigilance Committee to help runaway slaves to freedom.” (Blue-Eyed, p. 4).
Although clearly influenced by his upbringing, Shaw was not as fervent in his beliefs as were his parents. They were reformers—he was not interested in that avocation. He did the things a young man of his age and social status did—traveled abroad, studied, and enjoyed an active social life. But he was patriotic, and in a December 11, 1855 letter home from Europe, he was vehement in his dislike for those who disparaged his country. “As the years to Civil War wound down, Shaw increasingly felt that the Slave Power soiled the fabric of an otherwise great nation. When war came, he was primed to take revenge on the South for the abuse he wrote about on December 11, 1855. To him, the South was the transgressor, not the North. If it took the end of slavery to redeem the honor of America, and to end the embarrassment Northerners felt to be in the same union with an anachronistic system, then Shaw stood for that. If the North could avenge itself in battle against the South, then let her go with or without slavery intact, and leave the North as a separate nation, now more honorable for the fight, then Shaw stood for that. He never really felt the immorality of slavery the way the abolitionists did; he was never quite an abolitionist. … He would join the navy if he could “cut some of their heads open” and thus stop the offensive words coming from mouths of those who blasphemed his America. In 1861, he joined the army to do just that to Southerners. He would hope that slavery would fall, but he did not enlist to fight for that goal.” (Blue-Eyed, p. 10).
Shortly after secession, he joined the Seventh New York National Guard. This unit was very short lived, and he soon joined the Second Massachusetts Infantry, gaining an officer’s commission. Surprisingly, he found his calling and proved to be a good soldier. Twice wounded at Antietam, he rose to captain and was loyal to his unit, staying with it even when the only chance of earning a higher commission was to leave.
In 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and authorized the raising of black regiments. Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew, who had been a strong advocate of enlisting black soldiers, soon began to raise the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry. It was critical that the unit have the best leader, and after much consideration, Andrew opted to offer it to Robert Gould Shaw. He wrote to Shaw’s parents, hoping that family pressure would encourage the acceptance of the commission. The parents were thrilled at this honor, and Francis Shaw set out to personally deliver this to his son, and then encamped at Stafford Court House, Virginia. The son, loyal to his unit, refused. Concurrently, he received a letter from his mother, with these words, “Well! I feel as if God had called you up to a holy work. You helped him at a crisis when the most important question is to be solved that has been asked since the world began. I know the task is arduous . . . but it is God’s work.” (Blue-Eyed, p. 24) Perhaps out of guilt for failing his mother, for his lack of commitment to the cause, and/or from a sense of honor, two days later he telegraphed his father with a change of heart, and agreed to accept the commission.
Recruitment began in earnest. Frederick Douglass “delivered” more than 100 men, including two of his own sons. The grandson of Sojourner Truth enlisted. Let’s be clear about this—Shaw was no saint. Despite his upbringing, he shared many of the prejudices of his time and was uncertain about the ability of the black man to fight. However, he was determined that he, personally, not be seen as a failure, and thus persevered with discipline and training. For all his exposure to the cause of abolition, Shaw had never spent much time around blacks. As he spent time with his men, he began to evolve in his attitudes, learning to respect them, care about them, and defend them. The men responded by respecting him, and the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry began to “gel” as a unit.
Members of a black unit, including white officers, faced consequences that white units did not. Jefferson Davis had decreed that white officers of black units faced execution or harsh treatment if captured. The Confederate Congress resolved that white officers would be hanged and black soldiers returned to slavery. (Blue-Eyed, p. 321-322)
On May 28, 1863 Shaw and his men marched through Boston as they set off for South Carolina, and then on to Darien, Georgia, where they saw their first action in a raid on the town. In July the regiment was ordered back to South Carolina, to take part in the capture of Charleston. Shaw’s regiment would be fighting alongside white soldiers; a successful mission would go far to prove that black soldiers could, indeed, fight. On July 16 Confederate soldiers attacked the Union forces; the battle raged back and forth, but finally the Rebels broke off the attack. Shaw was overjoyed—his men performed so well that all the other troops credited them with saving the operation.
Two days later, they were on Morris Island, with orders to take Fort Wagner. The Fifty-fourth would take the lead. Shaw positioned himself in front, and the regiment surged across the beach and up the parapet. Some 1700 Confederate soldiers opened fire. Shaw was shot in the chest, dying and falling into the fort. “Nearly half the regiment succeeded in pushing its way inside Wagner. The men held their ground on the wall for almost an hour before being forced to withdraw. The Confederates lost 174 men. Of the 600 men of the Fifty-fourth who charged the fort, 272 were killed, wounded, or captured. Additional casualties from the white regiments that followed brought Union losses to 1,515. Confederate gravediggers buried eight hundred Union soldiers in the sand in front of the fort the morning after the battle. Showing the contempt Southern whites held for the “principle line of the Abolitionists”—white officers leading black soldiers—the fort’s commander, Gen. Johnson Hagood, ordered Shaw thrown into a ditch with his men. The diggers made a trench, dropped Shaw’s body within it, threw the bodies of twenty of his men on top of him, and shoveled them over with sand.” (Blue-Eyed, p. 52-53) When Shaw’s parents learned of his death, they naturally mourned his loss but were far from being offended at the manner of burial. They deemed the trench a holy place and asked that his body be left with those of his men.
Shortly after the battle, soldiers of the Fifty-fourth advocated for a memorial to their fallen leader, to be placed near the place where he fell. Shaw’s father was on board, but for a number of reasons, this memorial was never built. The monies raised towards it went for the first free school for African American children in Charleston, which was named for Shaw. In 1865 an African American businessman named Joshua Benton Smith, who had worked for the Shaw family when Robert was young, called for a memorial in Boston. In 1883, the commission for a sculpture was given to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who completed the work in 1897. “Saint-Gaudens always strove for perfection regarding realism. In this relief, he wanted to show a range in facial features and age, as found among the men of the regiment. This was the first time a monument depicted blacks realistically, and not as stereotypes. He hired African American men to pose, and modeled about 40 different heads to use as studies. His concern for accuracy also extended to the clothing and accoutrements.” (https://www.nps.gov/saga/learn/historyculture/the-shaw-memorial.htm)
At the unveiling on Boston Common, two of Shaw’s nephews and some 65 veterans of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry were present.
Here’s a close-up of the memorial.
Shaw’s heroism and sacrifice were also lauded by people who never knew him. University Archives Special Collections has a collection of poetry (MSS 102) written by a woman who lived in New Harmony named Betsy Wells Hall. She lived during the Civil War, and wrote a poem in memory of Abraham Lincoln, as well as one on the New Year 1862. When she learned about Shaw’s death, she penned this in his honor and memory.
All glory to the honored brave,
Though low in gory bed he lies
To rise up with each rescued slave
When the last trump shall rend the skies.
He calmly sleeps with the oppressed
With them shall find a welcome given
Well done thou faithful soul expressed
In the assembled court of Heaven.
Thus for and with the Saviour’s poor
With the down trodden dared to die
The cross he bravely did endure
His crown awaits him far on high.
The lurid clouds of war o’erspread
Fierce lightnings flashed across our sky,
Oppression reared his baleful head
Repelled by free born liberty.
He led those who of late were slaves,
E’en now their manhood to obtain
He lies beside the freed men’s graves,
Hallowed amid the martyred slain.
The mighty conflict shakes the world,
Satan at war against the right,
Around destructive engines hurled
Darkness contending with the light.
The hero Satan’s host withstood,
That equal rights might be secure
For liberty he shed his blood,
And died amid the Saviour’s poor.
He’s now removed to brighter spheres,
Through clearer vista to survey
The progress of far future years
Freedom’s broad meridian day.
The story of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry and Robert Gould Shaw was also told in the Academy Award winning 1989 film Glory. Matthew Broderick plays Shaw, and Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher, and Morgan Freeman portray soldiers in his regiment. Rice Library owns this on DVD, and it is available to be checked out — DVDs PN1997 .G562 2000.
So, what do you think about Shaw? Was he born great? Did he achieve greatness? Did he have greatness thrust upon him? It is your call.
To learn more, look at these resources consulted for this posting.
deGregory, C. A. (2009). Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry. Freedom Facts & Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil Rights Experience, 189.
Glory [DVD]. Culver City, CA : TriStar, c2000. DVDs PN1997 .G562 2000