Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Commanded the First All Black Regiment

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The son of prominent Boston abolitionists, Robert Gould Shaw was born October 10, 1837, to Francis and Sara Shaw. The heir to a large fortune, Francis Shaw advocated for a variety of causes and Robert was raised in an environment that included notable personalities such as William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1846, the family moved to Staten Island, NY and, despite being Unitarian, Robert enrolled in St. John's College Roman Catholic School. Five years later, the Shaws traveled to Europe and Robert continued his studies abroad.

Education and First Job

Returning home in 1855, he enrolled at Harvard the following year. After three years of university, Shaw withdrew from Harvard in order to take a position in his uncle's, Henry P. Sturgis, mercantile firm in New York. Though he was fond of the city, he found that he was ill-suited for business. While his interest in his work waned, he developed a passion for politics. A supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Shaw hoped that the ensuing secession crisis would see the Southern states brought back by force or cut loose from the United States.

Early Civil War

With the secession crisis peaking, Shaw enlisted in the 7th New York State Militia with the hope that he would see action if war broke out. Following the attack on Fort Sumter, the 7th NYS responded to Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Traveling to Washington, the regiment was quartered in the Capitol. While in the city, Shaw had the opportunity to meet both Secretary of State William Seward and President Lincoln. As the 7th NYS was only a short-term regiment, Shaw, who wished to remain in the service, applied for a permanent commission in a Massachusetts regiment.

On May 11, 1861, his request was granted and he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. Returning north, Shaw joined the regiment at Camp Andrew in West Roxbury for training. In July, the regiment was sent to Martinsburg, VA, and soon joined Major General Nathaniel Banks' corps. Over the next year, Shaw served in western Maryland and Virginia, with the regiment taking part in attempts to stop Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. During the First Battle of Winchester, Shaw luckily avoided being wounded when a bullet hit his pocket watch.

A short time later, Shaw was offered a position on Brigadier General George H. Gordon's staff which he accepted. After taking part in the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, Shaw was promoted to captain. While the 2nd Massachusetts' brigade was present at the Battle of Second Manassas later that month, it was held in reserve and did not see action. On September 17, Gordon's brigade saw heavy combat in the East Woods during the Battle of Antietam.

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment

On February 2, 1863, Shaw's father received a letter from Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew offering Robert command of the first Black regiment raised in the North, the 54th Massachusetts. Francis traveled to Virginia and presented the offer to his son. While initially reluctant, Robert was ultimately persuaded by his family to accept. Arriving in Boston on February 15, Shaw began recruiting in earnest. Assisted by Lt. Colonel Norwood Hallowell, the regiment began training at Camp Meigs. Though originally skeptical about the fighting qualities of the regiment, the men's dedication and devotion impressed him.

Officially promoted to colonel on April 17, 1863, Shaw married his sweetheart Anna Kneeland Haggerty in New York on May 2. On May 28, the regiment marched through Boston, to the cheers of a massive crowd, and began their voyage south. Arriving at Hilton Head, SC on June 3, the regiment began service in Major General David Hunter's Department of the South.

A week after landing, the 54th took part in Colonel James Montgomery's attack on Darien, GA. The raid angered Shaw as Montgomery ordered the town looted and burned. Unwilling to take part, Shaw and the 54th largely stood and watched as events unfolded. Angered by Montgomery's actions, Shaw wrote to Gov. Andrew and the adjutant general of the department. On June 30, Shaw learned that his troops were to be paid less than white soldiers. Displeased by this, Shaw inspired his men to boycott their pay until the situation was resolved (it took 18 months).

Following Shaw's letters of complaint regarding the Darien raid, Hunter was relieved and replaced with Major General Quincy Gillmore. Seeking to attack Charleston, Gillmore began operations against Morris Island. These initially went well, however the 54th was excluded much to Shaw's chagrin. Finally on July 16, the 54th saw action on nearby James Island when it aided in repulsing a Confederate attack. The regiment fought well and proved that Black soldiers were the equals of whites. Following this action, Gillmore planned an attack on Fort Wagner on Morris Island.

The honor of the lead position in the assault was given to the 54th. On the evening of July 18, believing that he would not survive the attack, Shaw sought out Edward L. Pierce, a reporter with the New York Daily Tribune, and gave him several letters and personal papers. He then returned to the regiment which was formed up for the assault. Marching over open beach, the 54th came under heavy fire from the Confederate defenders as it approached the fort. With the regiment wavering, Shaw sprung to the front yelling "Forward 54th!" and led his men as they charged. Surging through ditch surrounding the fort, the 54th scaled the walls. Reaching the top of the parapet, Shaw stood and waved his men forward. As he urged them on he was shot through the heart and killed. Despite the regiment's valor the attack was repulsed with the 54th suffering 272 casualties (45% of its total strength).

Angered by the use of Black soldiers, the Confederates stripped Shaw's body and buried it with his men, believing that it would humiliate his memory. After attempts by Gillmore to recover Shaw's body failed, Francis Shaw asked him to stop, believing his son would prefer to rest with his men.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Commanded the First All Black Regiment." ThoughtCo, Jan. 4, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, January 4). Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Commanded the First All Black Regiment. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Commanded the First All Black Regiment." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).