Robert Gould Shaw Leader of the 54th Massauchusetts Infantry

Robert Gould Shaw

Who was Robert Gould Shaw?

Robert Gould Shaw was a Union colonel, who was in charge of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry are well known for being one of the first all African American regiment, and naturally, Shaw is well known for being their leader. Shaw's ideals were ahead of his time, as he advocated for equal pay. Naturally, being the first all African American regiment, Shaw and the 54th helped to break barriers and changed preconceived notions on what African Americans could accomplish. Through the course of the Civil War, Robert Gould Shaw wrote many letters to his family and friends, and over 200 of them were published. Additionally, his Captain, Luis Emilio also wrote letters that were saved.

Shaw and the 54th

Early Life

Robert Gould Shaw's upbringing make it clear why he was chosen to lead the 54th. The Shaw family were abolitionists, among the most prominent and well-known abolitionist families in Massachusetts. He was childhood friends with the children of William Lloyd Garrison, another well-known abolitionist.

Battle of Antietam

Early Military Career

By the time he took over the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, in March of 1963, Shaw was certainly battle tested. He fought in the battle of Antietam in 1962, and was promoted to Captain of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. From his letters to his parents and sister, Shaw expressed not only his love for serving in the military, but also his love for his fellow soldiers in the 2nd Massachusetts. The tight bond he formed with them would make it hard for him to leave them.

Governor John Andrew of MA

Formation of the 54th

After Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had been enacted, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew was given approval to form a unit of African American soldiers. Andrew wanted Shaw to take command of the unit, but he understood that racial tensions in the nation were high, and it may take some extra effort to persuade Shaw. So he enlisted the help of Shaw's father, Francis Shaw, to help convince Robert Shaw. Francis Shaw sent a letter to Robert with the proposal, but Robert initially declined it. In his letter to his fiance, Shaw gave two reasons for why he chose to decline the offer. The first, he was happy where he was, and didn't want to leave his unit. Two, he wasn't sure that an all black unit could succeed, given the racism that was prominent at the time. However, he also mentioned that he felt as though he was disappointing his mother. The feeling of disappointment got to him, and two days after his letter to his fiance, he accepted the proposal.

54th Massachusetts Infantry

Shaw and The 54th Massachusetts Infantry

The 54th received a lot of moral support from Abolitionists in Massachusetts. They received food, clothing, money for supplies and more. Any doubts Robert Gold Shaw had with regards to the capability of his men were quickly erased. In his letters to his parents and fiance, he expressed his admiration towards their work-ethic and capability. So many men sought to join the 54th that the screenings became quite rigorous. As a result, Shaw wrote that the Surgeon General told him he had never seen "a more robust, strong and healthy set of men". Shaw frequently advocated for his men, and his commitment to them was admirable. He wrote to his family about his interest in their song and dance, and often participated in it. Most notably though, he wrote to Governor Andrew about a pay cut that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had imposed on African American soldiers. He said that it was unacceptable and if his men weren't paid the same 13 dollars a month that white soldiers were paid, that he ought to just disband the unit. The 54th headed off to join the fight, and their morale was quite high, as they received the support and admiration of citizens all over the union, both black and white. However, Shaw wrote that he and his men were concerned about Jefferson Davis' proclamation that any black soldiers captured would be returned to slavery, and any white officers commanding them would be put to death.

54th In Action

The 54th first went to South Carolina, where they accompanied the 2nd South Carolina, under Colonel James Montgomery. Their first piece of action was a raid of Darien, South Carolina. Afterwords, Montgomery ordered that the town be burned down. Despite the pleas and objections of Shaw, the town was burned down, as was others. It disgusted Shaw to the point where he wrote to Lieutenant General Halpine to voice his disapproval of these actions and question whether Montgomery was following orders. Eventually, the 54th was pulled to James Island near Charleston. The Union was attacking Fort Wagner. It was a gruesome battle and it was decided that an infantry assault needed to happen. The 54th was chosen for the job. When questioned of his rationale of choosing an all black infantry unit for the job, General Thomas Seymour said, according to Captain Luis Emilio, that they "were in any respect as efficient as any other body of men; and as one of the strongest and best officered, there seemed to be no good reason why it should not be selected for the advance".

Storming of Fort Wagner

Fort Wagner and Death

While Shaw and the 54th bravely stormed Fort Wagner, it was for naught. The Confederacy won the battle and Robert Gould Shaw was killed in action. As a sign of disrespect, the Confederacy stripped Shaw and buried him in a pit with his dead African American soldiers. When word reached Shaw's family of what had happened, through Captain Luis Emilio, they responded that they were proud of Shaw. His father wrote that, "“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 body-guard he has!”

Memorial of Shaw and the 54th

Legacy and Importance of the 54th

Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Infantry helped prove to the world that African American soldiers could accomplish anything. The Battle for Fort Wagner was gruesome, and Shaw and the unit suffered greatly fighting for a cause they believed in. The 54th Infantry had received a lot of praise for their bravery and skill at the time, and they were overflowing with men trying to join and fight. Additionally, their rise demonstrated a shift in social attitudes towards African Americans. America was still in the process of eliminating slavery, and even though many people in the country still looked down upon African Americans, through the work of Governor Andrew, the Shaw family and other abolitionists, they were able to form this unit. Their story has been retold in a 1989 film called Glory. There have been several poems written of Shaw and his unit, and there is a memorial to them in Massachusetts, which is pictured above. There is also a small neighborhood in Washington, D.C. called Shaw. The neighborhood was created from freed slave encampments.

Sources

Primary Sources

Note: All of Shaw's letters are published in the book "Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw". These are easier to read, however, the letters cited below can also be found on Harvard's Website here: http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hou00649

Emilio, Luis F. A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865. New York: Da Capo, 1995.

Letter from Robert Gould Shaw to Anna Haggerty, 4 February 1863. Published in Shaw, Robert Gould. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Letter from Robert Gould Shaw to Anna Haggerty, 8 February 1863. Published in Shaw, Robert Gould. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

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

Secondary Sources

Note: All War of the Rebellion Records Can Be Found Here: http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/m/moawar/waro_fulltext.html

War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 1. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895. (2-17; 210-212; 267-268; 345-349)

War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 2. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895. (8-9; 214; 15-16)

War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 3. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895. (362-363)

War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895. (1027-1032; 1036-1039)

Created By: Anthony De La Torre

Created By
Anthony De La Torre
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