Who is Colonel Robert Gould Shaw?

The news coming out of the Massachusetts Historical Society here in Boston could not be more exciting. Yesterday the MHS announced that they are in possession of the sword that was carried into battle at Battery Wagner by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Shaw was killed leading his men at Wagner, outside of Charleston, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. His body was buried with his men on Morris Island.

I am very much looking forward to seeing the sword in person when it goes on display next week, but should we expect a surge of interest among the general public? You might assume so given the popularity of the 1989 movie “Glory” that starred Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick. It is still by far my favorite Civil War movie.

It is important to keep in mind that Shaw’s popularity and that of the 54th is very much tied to the success of this Hollywood movie in a way not unlike the surge of interest in Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg following the release of Michael Shaara’s historical novel, The Killer Angels, and the later release of the movie, “Gettysburg.” In the case of Shaw and the 54th we should remember that the movie was released over 25 years ago. I suspect that the story now resonates for fewer and fewer people.

What, if anything, should this mean for the curators at the MHS? It might simply mean that they shouldn’t count on the popularity of the movie alone to drive public interest. This also suggests that the MHS will have the opportunity to work with a relatively blank canvas and be able to interpret the sword free from the movie’s interpretation, which as I note in this brief video, is not always accurate.

For now, congratulations to the MHS for securing such an important artifact. I can’t wait to see it.

10 comments… add one
  • Rob Baker Jul 13, 2017

    Really cool news. The description of how the sword came to their possession reminds of the stories of how P. Cleburne’s sword and pistol. I hope that is published soon and I cannot wait to see it.

  • Chris Meekins Jul 13, 2017

    In Raleigh we pay tribute to Colonel Shaw every day – Shaw University continues to educate and free minds. Here in Raleigh we have honored his name everyday since December 1, 1865.

    • Timothy Talbott Jul 13, 2017

      Shaw University is named for Elijah Shaw, who funded construction of the first building on campus.

  • Matt McKeon Jul 13, 2017

    The MHS has an amazing collection of artifacts as well as their archival holdings.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2017

      They do indeed.

  • fundrums Jul 14, 2017

    That is exciting for sure. One of my top three Civil war books that I’ve read is “Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” That book does an excellent job of presenting the man and not the myth.

    – Michael

  • London John Jul 14, 2017

    I believe the monument itself was fairly well known long before the film. It was featured in “Captions Courageous” published 1958 which put comic captions to famous artworks (I think it was “ignore her, men, she’s just a camp follower”, presumably referring to the angel in the bas-relief).
    One thing I didn’t understand about Glory was the depiction of the regiment of escaped slaves with which the 54th Massachussetts went on a joint mission, and its racist and obnoxious midwestern colonel. In reality that was the 1st South Carolina commanded by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. As TWH was a very prominent Massachussetts abolitionist, Col. Shaw would probably have known him or at least his family would have known of him.

    • Matt McKeon Jul 16, 2017

      The unit that went to Darien was the Second South Carolina Volunteers, commanded by Montgomery. The First SC, later the 33rd USCT was commanded by Higginson. Higginson’s journals of the time he later worked up into “Army Life in a Black Regiment” which is an interesting read. I believe the only account by an African American nurse, Susie King Taylor also has a connection with Higginson and the 33rd, Taylor was married to a sergeant in that regiment.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2017

        That’s right. In fact, if you read Shaw’s letter it is pretty clear that he admired Montgomery.

      • London John Jul 18, 2017

        Yes, Higginson read and slightly edited the manuscript of “A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs” by Susie King Taylor. It looks as though she published the book herself, with a brief intro by Higginson.. It’s not clear if or how Higginson helped her, but in civilian life he was a big wheel in the New England literary scene.
        According to the 1987 introduction, SKT helped to nurse the 54th’s wounded after the assault on Battery Wagner.

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