Crowds lined Boston’s Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 to see the men of the first “coloured” regiment recruited in the North parade to the State House to receive their regimental flags from Governor John Andrew. Patriotic bunting hung from windows while bands filled the air with martial music. The city’s Black abolitionist community celebrated the sight of armed and uniformed Black soldiers who represented the culmination of decades of activism against the institution of slavery and racial discrimination in the city of Boston.
Frederick Douglass must have swelled with pride as eldest son Lewis marched passed alongside men that he and other recruiters helped to enlist. The sight must have appeared surreal to Thomas Sims, who fled from slavery in Georgia to Boston only to be arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act and returned to bondage in 1851. Sims escaped once again in 1863 and returned to Boston in time to see the state’s first Black soldiers, who themselves would soon set foot on Georgia soil.
The publisher of the nation’s leading abolitionist newspaper once burned a copy of the Constitution, declaring it a “covenant with hell,” but on this day William Lloyd Garrison’s defiance turned to tears in the home of Wendell Phillips as the soldiers approached. For many white Bostonians, however, the parade evoked more curiosity and even fear for what the recruitment and arming of Black men might mean to the Union cause and the future of the nation.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw rode confidently atop his horse as he led the roughly 1000 men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Just steps from the capital Shaw and his regiment passed his family’s home at 44 Beacon Street. Shaw briefly glanced up at the balcony and saluted his family, who cheered enthusiastically, not knowing whether they would ever see him again. After the regiment received its flags Shaw led his men in a short order drill on the Boston Common to showcase the hard training of the previous three months and to demonstrate to those who still harbored doubts that these men were now prepared for the hard rigors of military life.
Robert hailed from one of Boston’s wealthiest and elite Brahmin families. As the child of reform-minded parents, he appeared to be the ideal choice to train and lead Black men in battle. His parents helped to establish Brook Farm, a utopian experiment in communal living, located just outside Boston. Growing up Shaw was exposed to the political debates over slavery that heated up in the 1840s and 50s and was introduced to some of the city’s most vocal and passionate abolitionists. Even his parents, especially his mother, had established themselves as vocal critics of the nation’s “peculiar institution.”
Shaw described the passage of his regiment through the city as a “perfect triumph.” Indeed, the sense of pride and accomplishment must have been overwhelming for the young colonel. At some point during the parade Shaw may have reflected on the turn of events that brought the nation and him to this moment. There was certainly nothing inevitable about Shaw’s decision to accept command of the 54th Massachusetts; in fact, he at first rejected the governor’s offer out of concern for his own reputation and the relationships he had already established as a captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment. Many of the men now under Shaw’s command likely also harbored questions and doubts about military service. For now, however, marching fully armed and in uniform through a city that many celebrated as the birthplace of the Revolution filled the men with hope that their service might one day bring an end to slavery and result in full citizenship for African Americans.
The regiment’s training in Readville, near Boston, concluded an experiment in whether African Americans could be prepared for military duty. For the first two years of the war the Lincoln administration refused the service of Black men in places like Boston. Lincoln resisted emancipation and Black enlistment to assuage concerns from the slaveholding “Border States” that remained in the Union as well as out of fear that Black enlistment would lead to the abandonment of the cause by the loyal white citizenry, who were committed only to preserving the Union. A deep-seated racism also pervaded much of the nation, casting doubt on whether Black men had the moral and intellectual capacity to fight as soldiers. Shaw may have considered their training a success, but like others he also harbored doubts about whether they would rise to the occasion in the face of shot and shell and an enemy that viewed them as barbaric hordes.
Once the crowds dispersed from the Boston Common, Shaw led his regiment to the city’s wharves to board a transport south to the Sea Coast Islands of South Carolina. With Boston’s church spires receding in the distance Shaw and his men focused their attention on their mission as well as the many unknowns and dangers that had come to define military life.
Eight weeks later Shaw fell in battle while leading his men against Battery Wagner on Morris Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Shaw, along with roughly 270 of his men, were buried in a mass grave by victorious Confederates on the day after the battle. Shaw’s parents chose to leave him to rest permanently with his men rather than have his body disinterred and brought back to Boston.
Like many others, I first discovered the story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts after watching the Academy Award-winning movie, Glory (1989). The movie, starring Denzell Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick, who played Shaw, reintroduced the history of this famous regiment to a generation of Americans at a time when popular perceptions of the Civil War had evolved to more fully embrace the story of emancipation and the place of African Americans in it. Glory follows Shaw and his men—portrayed overwhelmingly and inaccurately as former slaves—from recruitment and training to their failed, but heroic assault at Battery Wagner.
The movie explores the many challenges faced by this regiment—from racial discrimination in the Union army and unequal pay to the dangers of the battlefield itself and the Confederacy’s proclamation that captured Black soldiers would be executed as slaves in rebellion—but the larger story revolves around Shaw and his personal struggle to embrace their cause as his own. Glory celebrates Shaw and the process that led him to fully embrace the role that he was, according to the movie, destined to play leading former slaves in a war to end slavery.
The assault proved to be the regiment’s finest hour and, though it ultimately failed, the high casualty rate demonstrated to a still skeptical nation that Black men were just as brave and disciplined in the face of shot and shell as white men. Glory leaves audiences with a clear understanding that only in death did Shaw’s service to his country and leadership of the Black men under his command rise to a higher cause.
The story of a heroic Shaw, who devoted his military career to Black soldiers and emancipation only to be cut down in the prime of his life at a young twenty-six years of age certainly makes for a compelling and entertaining movie, but it does little to shed light on the real history of the man and the events surrounding his life. As I delved more deeply into Shaw’s personal correspondence it became clear that there was nothing inevitable about his decision to accept command of the 54th Massachusetts.
Like the vast majority of white northerners, who eagerly answered Lincoln’s call for volunteers in the Spring of 1861, Shaw viewed the war as a “People’s Contest”—a contest to determine whether republican self-government and the Union could be preserved. Even with his family’s outspokenness on the question of slavery and emancipation, Shaw had relatively little to say about the plight of enslaved people and the growing calls for emancipation as the war dragged into 1862. Shaw questioned whether the announcement of Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, just days after the bloody battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, would be an effective instrument in freeing slaves. He also maintained that many in the ranks were against it. And as we have already seen, Shaw rejected the initial offer by the governor of Massachusetts to accept the command of a Black regiment and only accepted after being prodded by his parents.
It is not a stretch to suggest that had the war ended before 1863, before emancipation became central to Lincoln’s wartime agenda, Shaw would have celebrated his generation’s role in destroying the “Slaveholders’ Rebellion” and preserving the Union, even with slavery still intact in parts of the country.
Like countless others, the war swept up Shaw and forced him to consider decisions and policies that were barely discernible at the beginning of the war. No policy was more controversial than emancipation and the recruitment of Black soldiers. The United States inched toward emancipation by the end of 1862 as a result of events on the battlefield as well as the actions of enslaved men and women who abandoned plantations across the Confederacy, forcing military commanders and the Lincoln administration to set new policies. By the summer of 1862 military commanders were no longer allowed to return escaped slaves to their owners. Congress abolished slavery in Washington, D.C. and the western territories. Finally, the emancipation of tens of thousands of Black men, women, and children loomed if Confederate states refused to surrender by the end of the year. How the war would further alter slavery and race relations now that African Americans were serving as soldiers was anyone’s guess
Shaw struggled to come to terms with the implications of these developments—first as a volunteer in the elite Seventh New York Regiment and later as an officer in the Second Massachusetts Regiment—even as the violence deepened and news of fallen comrades challenged his commitment to the cause. His eventual acceptance of command of the 54th Massachusetts did not signal a final embrace of emancipation and racial equality in early 1863. Rather, it added to his confusion. Shaw remained deeply skeptical about the impact that his decision might have on his military career, his personal reputation and for the fate of the nation that he was fighting to defend.
Because of the impact of Glory, it should come as no surprise that popular memory of Shaw is centered on his relatively brief command of the 54th Massachusetts, but A Glorious Fate explores his early military career beginning in 1861. Shaw’s extensive and regular correspondence with family, friends, and notable public figures show how he experienced the war in its early years. During this period, he wrote in great detail about the progress of the war, the violence of battle and loss of friends, the intransigence of Confederate civilians, and the impact of the war on the enslaved people that he met along the way.
Shaw commanded Black soldiers in the field for roughly eight weeks. During that time the regiment experienced the humiliation of racism within the military, manual labor, disease, and the loss of men on the battlefield. Shaw and his men also experienced the earliest efforts to reconstruct one of the oldest slaveholding regions in the nation.
Reconstruction is commonly understood as beginning in 1865, following Confederate surrender and lasting until 1877. It includes landmark amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed equal rights under the constitution regardless of race and the right to vote for Black Americans, but Shaw caught a brief glimpse of its earliest beginnings in the summer of 1863. Many of the questions that divided Americans about how to reunite the Union and the place of 4 million former slaves in it after 1865, Shaw and others confronted in the middle of the war.
One week after leaving Boston, Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts disembarked at Beaufort, South Carolina on the island of Port Royal. Many of the sights, sounds, and smells that greeted Shaw and his regiment—made up overwhelmingly of freeborn Blacks, who hailed from northern states— were alien. Many of the men had never before even seen the ocean, let alone experience the hardships and violence of slavery. Shaw himself had never before traveled this far into the Slaveholding South.
The regiment set up camp in the cotton field of an old plantation. The sandy streets of Beaufort were lined with tall oaks that provided sought after shade and a little comfort on the most brutally hot and humid days. Large homes and gardens, abandoned by their former owners in 1861, stood as a testament to the wealth that was made possible by the tens of thousands of enslaved people who for generations toiled and turned profits for their owners. Churches, public buildings, and a large open green completed the picture, while additional regiments, cavalry, and artillery served as a reminder that the island had long been under military occupation.
Indeed, Port Royal and the surrounding islands had been under military occupation since November 1861. The arrival of the Union army and navy forced slaveholders to flee their estates, but the classification of the enslaved as “contraband”—a military and legal status that left African Americans in a state of limbo somewhere between free and slave—did little to answer questions concerning their future and more immediate challenges related to day-to-day survival. News of the occupation quickly spread, as did concerns of a looming humanitarian crisis.
In response, hundreds of reformers or self-proclaimed “Gideonites” from Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia flocked to the Sea Coast Islands. These men and women brought with them strong anti-slavery convictions that had been nurtured over the past few decades as well as a belief in the superiority of Northern civilization and its values. Reformers sought to impose institutions such as schools, town meetings, and “liberal Christianity” to ease the transition from slavery to freedom.
As armies engaged in some of the bloodiest fighting in the summer of 1863, culminating in decisive Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Shaw and his men found themselves in the middle of a radical social experiment, the likes of which the nation had never before seen.
For roughly two months Shaw’s command functioned as the military arm of what became known as the Port Royal Experiment. Their responsibility was to secure the islands in and around Port Royal and protect thousands of freedmen from nearby Confederate forces. The protection afforded by Shaw’s regiment created a safe space in which thousands of newly freed men and women could farm, care for their families, and begin to carve out their own definition of freedom.
Reformers often clashed with freedpeople over questions of labor and property. African Americans sometimes refused to cultivate cotton; they demanded high wages in exchange for work and pushed for the opening of schools as well as the right to own their own property. This political awakening created a good deal of tension and conflict between formerly enslaved people, military personnel, and the expectations of northern reformers. Like others, Shaw struggled reconciling his own assumptions about race and slavery with the unfolding situation along the Sea Islands and his responsibilities as a military officer.
The challenges that Shaw faced commanding in this environment were markedly different from anything he had experienced the previous two years. The morale in the regiment suffered as a result of being relegated to hard labor constructing and repairing roads. To make matters worse, the men were refused the full pay of $13 per month that was promised them by the federal government upon enlistment.
The men of the 54th Massachusetts understood that even on the battlefield the color of their skin could mean the difference between life and death after Confederate officials announced that Black soldiers faced execution as slaves in rebellion if caught. White officers were not immune from this danger. If caught they also faced the possibility of execution for leading these men in battle.
Added to this, Shaw and his regiment were placed under the command of Colonel James Montgomery, one of the most colorful and controversial officers stationed in Port Royal. Montgomery commanded a regiment of former slaves and viewed the war in providential and even apocalyptic terms. His deep abolitionist beliefs were coupled with a conviction that Southerners deserved to be punished for the crimes of slavery and secession. Shaw was both horrified and intrigued by Montgomery’s strong principled stand on how the war ought to be fought—a certainty that Shaw himself never fully achieved. Their relationship culminated in the controversial burning of Darien, Georgia, which was carried out by the 54th Massachusetts and which Shaw protested as a violation of the Articles of War.
Shaw’s first serious exposure to African Americans and their struggles took place while stationed in and around Port Royal. He visited schools and churches organized for freedmen and took part in freedom celebrations. While in Port Royal Shaw struck up a close friendship with Charlotte Forten, a Black abolitionist and educator from Philadelphia. Questions about the nature of their relationship still linger.
The Port Royal Experiment and Shaw’s role in it forced the rest of the nation to confront questions that were only beginning to come into view. What did freedom mean for the formerly enslaved? What role should the federal government and the military play in uplifting formerly enslaved people and protecting their civil rights? What did African Americans deserve as a result of their military service and sacrifice for the nation? And ultimately, is it possible to create a bi-racial democracy in a nation where racism still shaped how the vast majority of white Americans perceived African Americans?
Shaw did not live long enough to answer these and other pressing questions, but his actions helped to steer the nation in a direction that few anticipated or even desired in 1861, the consequences of which Americans still struggle to reconcile today.
II: Chapter Breakdown
Chapter 1—Early Years: 1837-1856
Robert Gould Shaw was born into a family that was active in numerous reform movements, especially abolitionism. Some of Shaw’s earliest memories were of Brook Farm in West Roxbury—a utopian experiment in communal living— which his parents helped to establish. Francis George Shaw and Sarah Black Shaw exposed him to some of the leading figures in the abolitionist movement, including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Fanny Kemble. Shaw’s early education included private tutors and Fordham before heading off to Europe with his family, where his education continued at schools in Switzerland and Germany. Even with growing up in a family that was active in the abolitionist movement, there is little evidence that the plight of slaves impacted Shaw in any significant way.
Shaw may have been exposed to the moral tenets of the reform movement at a young age, but his Brahmin upbringing also instilled in him a hierarchical view of the world. Like other young men from his social class, Shaw was encouraged to adopt high standards of excellence, duty, and restraint—all traits of an enlightened aristocracy and evidence of a natural hierarchy.
Chapter 2—Harvard to Civil War: 1856-1861
Shaw’s hierarchical view of the world and privilege was reinforced while at Harvard. He took the required courses, practiced violin, and played football to prove his manhood, but Shaw struggled deciding on a professional path. At different times he considered becoming a farmer or joining the United States army. This period witnessed a deepening of the sectional crisis, which Shaw followed closely. He expressed disgust with slaveholding aristocrats, who jeopardized the future of the Union, but what stands out is his resistance to seeing the growing likelihood of disunion and the possibility of war as an opportunity to end slavery. The lessons of his reform-minded parents came into sharp conflict with Harvard’s conservative culture, which condemned radicals, who threatened social harmony. Shaw struggled to work through the tension between the two throughout his military career. Unhappy with life on campus, Shaw left Harvard in 1859 to work in his uncle’s shipping business in New York City.
Following the Confederate bombardment at Fort Sumter Shaw rushed to enlist in the elite New York Seventh Regiment—a unit whose social profile reflected Shaw’s privileged status. The regiment was one of the first to answer Lincoln’s call for troops. Shaw traveled with the regiment to D.C., where he met Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State, William Seward. His brief enlistment with the Seventh New York solidified his view that the primary goal of the war should be the preservation of the Union with minimal disruption of the economic and social structure of the South.
Shaw returned to Boston, where he was commissioned an officer in the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The unit trained on the grounds of the old Brook Farm in West Roxbury. During this period Shaw learned the art of command. It was also during this period that his assumptions about leadership and privilege emerged. He expressed frustration with the practice of electing officers. Shaw believed that the best sort of people should lead and, as an educated gentleman, that meant himself. Owing to his social status, Shaw believed that he had a responsibility to instill character-forming traits in the men under his command, especially in the handling of immigrant and African American soldiers.
Chapter 3—Harper’s Ferry: July-December, 1861
Shaw’s first extended encampment was located in an around Harper’s Ferry in the summer of 1861, the site of John Brown’s failed slave insurrection two years earlier. Shaw visited all of the sites related to the raid, including the site of Brown’s trial, the firehouse where he made his last stand, and his execution site. In addition, Shaw encountered enslaved people for the first time. The experience forced Shaw to address the gap between his parents’ abolitionist convictions and his own conservative view that remained focused more narrowly on the preservation of the Union.
Shaw adjusted easily to military life and embraced the war as a great adventure. He thought little of rummaging through private property in abandoned homes. Shaw enjoyed close contact with fellow officers stationed in the area. His family kept Shaw supplied with wine, food, books, and enjoyed the company of his mother and father for a brief time. While encamped during this first winter Shaw imposed a harsh discipline on his men and rarely resisted meting out severe punishments even for minor transgressions. Shaw’s commitment to discipline led to his appointment to a court-martial board in response to the first desertions of the war.
Chapter 4—Chasing Stonewall Jackson: January-May, 1862
The first few months of 1862 included Shaw’s first experience of the horrors of war in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Union General Nathaniel Banks marched and countermarched between Winchester, Strasburg, and New Market in pursuit of Stonewall Jackson— the South’s new star. Shaw encountered fugitive slaves, Secessionists, and the “terrible sights” wrought by war. As Jackson’s army inflicted casualties on Union soldiers, Shaw wrote of the horrible conditions in field hospitals and while he praised the fighting ability of the men under his command, he also noted that many of them were “thieves” and “drunkards.” Shaw also commented on events elsewhere. He praised General David Hunter’s order freeing slaves in his military district in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and castigated Lincoln for overturning it shortly thereafter. All in all, Shaw remained optimistic about the war and his role in it: “What a blessing that we happened to be born in this century and country.”
Chapter 5—First Taste of Battle: May-August, 1862
Front Royal proved to be another defeat, but Union victories in the Western Theater spurred hopes among Northerners that the Confederacy could be defeated. Those hopes were dashed owing to a string of Confederate victories outside of Richmond led by Robert E. Lee against a much larger Union army led by General George McClellan. Within weeks Lee’s army was moving north in its own offensive that threatened Washington, D.C. and other Northern cities.
While the focus of this chapter will be Shaw’s response to the escalation of the war in Virginia and his experience on the battlefield, it also explores the deep disagreements with his parents over the politics of military command and policy. Shaw was a staunch supporter of McClellan (a Democrat) and his conservative approach to command, while his parents called for his removal owing to his lackluster performance in the field and his views on emancipation and slavery.
Chapter 6—Cedar Mountain to Antietam: August-December, 1862
The battle of Front Royal could not have prepared Shaw— now serving on the staff of General George Gordon—for the bloodletting that took place at the battles of Cedar Mountain on August 9, and Antietam on September 17. Both occurred as part of Lee first invasion of the United States following his victories around Richmond. Between the two battles, Shaw watched his friends, fellow officers, and men, fall around him—243 casualties and 80 men killed.
“At last, night came on, and, with the exception of an occasional shot from the outposts, all was quiet. The crickets chirped, and the frogs croaked, just as if nothing unusual had happened all day long, and presently the stars came out bright, and we laydown among the dead, and slept soundly until daylight. There were twenty dead bodies within a rod of me.” [September 17, 1862]
The victory at Antietam gave Lincoln the opportunity to publish his Emancipation Proclamation. Shaw remained deeply skeptical that it would have any impact on the course of the war.
Captain Shaw and the Second Massachusetts did not participate in the fight at Fredericksburg, but stayed in quarters at Sharpsburg, Maryland, and Fairfax Station, Virginia. Reflecting on the war, Shaw vacillated between the prospects of a long and costly struggle and the possibilities of a brokered peace with the Confederacy. He remained convinced that though the Emancipation Proclamation was morally correct it was unlikely to have a decisive impact on the course of the war. Shaw considered joining the cavalry, but his loyalty to his unit prevailed. The deaths of his first cousin Theodore Parkman and a close friend left him doubtful that he would survive the war. Still, Shaw was determined to see the contest through to the end and wrote: “I had rather stay here all my life . . . than give up to the South.”
Shaw began his courtship of Annie Haggerty while in winter camp. He obtained a leave of absence to visit her and to see his family and quickly proposed marriage.
Chapter 7—The Decision: January 1863:
Lincoln authorized Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to enlist Black men into volunteer regiments following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on the first of the month. The first unit approved and organized was the 54th Massachusetts. To command this experimental regiment, Governor John A. Andrew handpicked Shaw. The governor’s original offer was rejected by Shaw. It took his father to make a special trip from New York City to Virginia to ensure that his son accepted the commission. Though the evidence is limited, this chapter will attempt to piece together through his personal correspondence the various factors that led to his acceptance as well as how his close friends in the army responded to his decision. Finally, the difficulty Shaw faced in making this decision must be explored in relationship to the challenges and questions that other white officers faced while weighing the same offers to command Black regiments.
Chapter 8—Readville: February-May, 1863
Shaw began the process of organizing and training the 54th Massachusetts in Readville, just outside of Boston. Recruitment was slow owing to the relatively small Black population in Massachusetts and their suspicions stemming from the federal government’s earlier rejection of Black military service. While the unit was given priority in receiving uniforms, weapons, and other supplies, Shaw struggled in developing a relationship with his new recruits. For Shaw, assumptions about the inferiority of the race and doubts about their ability to meet the challenges of the battlefield stemmed from earlier questions about Irish soldiers. This chapter explores the formation and training of the regiment, but also takes stock of how these Black recruits, along with the many visitors to Readville, perceived Shaw as a commander.
Shaw married Annie Haggerty while at Readville and enjoyed a brief honeymoon that took him away from his regiment.
Chapter 9—Parade: May 28, 1863
Shaw considered the debut of his regiment through the streets of Boston to be a resounding success. For the men in the 54th it was an opportunity to showcase the hard training of the previous 90 days and to demonstrate to the nation they were willing to give their lives to save the Union. It was also an opportunity to deal a death blow to slavery. This chapter explores how white and Black Bostonians interpreted Shaw and the regiment’s debut as well as the hopes and concerns that they attached to its participation in the war. Their responses exposed deep fault lines that had long defined the city’s racial divide. The city’s Black and white abolitionists viewed the parade as the culmination of everything they had struggled to achieve over the previous decades. For many people in Boston and throughout the rest of the country, however, the introduction of Black soldiers into the ranks raised only difficult questions and fears about the direction of the nation.
Chapter 10—Port Royal: June-July, 1863
Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts arrived at Port Royal, South Carolina in the middle of a radical experiment led by the U.S. military and northern reformers to introduce institutions such as schools, town meetings, and “liberal Christianity” to help ease the transition of Black Americans from slavery to freedom. This chapter looks at the ongoing attempts in and around Port Royal to reconstruct one of the oldest slaveholding regions of the country in the midst of civil war. For Shaw and the vast majority of the men under his command this was their first extended exposure to formerly enslaved men and women. Shaw and his men interacted with northern reformers, government agents, and the “freedmen”—a situation that often placed these three groups in conflict with one another over their often-conflicting agendas and competing notions of what freedom means. Though his time along the Sea Islands of South Carolina was brief, Shaw’s observations point to the complexity of the challenges that the nation would face during the postwar period throughout the former Confederate states.
Chapter 11—The Burning of Darien, GA, June 11, 1863
Shortly after their arrival at Port Royal, Shaw and his regiment accompanied Colonel James Montgomery’s 2nd South Carolina Volunteers on a raid that resulted in the burning of Darien, Georgia. Shaw and his regiment were placed under the command of Montgomery during the raid and considered the order to loot and burn the town be a violation of the Articles of War. This chapter examines the contrasting outlooks on the escalating violence of the war between Shaw and Montgomery. According to Montgomery, “Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old.” His extreme views posed a challenge to Shaw, but Shaw maintained deep respect of Montgomery’s unwavering and principled stance on how the war should be prosecuted—a stance that Shaw never fully attained. Shaw was also concerned about the impact that news coverage of the raid might have on his and the regiment’s reputation and worried about its potential impact on the broader goal of Black recruitment and the African-American communities support of the war effort, which remained uncertain throughout this period.
Chapter 12—Assault on Battery Wagner, July 18, 1863
The 54th Massachusetts suffered 40% casualties, including the death of their colonel at the base of Battery Wagner. While family and friends mourned for Shaw, the rest of the nation responded to some of the first reports of the bravery of Black soldiers on the battlefield. While it is common to argue that their performance convinced white Americans of the bravery of Black soldiers, newspaper coverage was anything but monolithic. The wide range of responses reflect political fault lines over the conduct of the war as well as fears attached to the arming of Black men and the consequences of military service and emancipation for white Americans and the nation.
Chapter 13—Martyr to the Cause: 1863-1915
Shaw transitioned quickly into a martyr for the Union cause and emancipation. Within months the Black community in Boston took the lead with producing the first works of art honoring Shaw, including a bust of the young colonel and portrait. In 1865 New-York Tribune reporter James Redpath helped establish a Black orphan asylum named after Shaw in Charleston, South Carolina. A Black school in the city was also named in honor of the fallen colonel with funds raised from Black soldiers, as were countless schools across the country by the end of the century. This chapter examines early efforts to commemorate Shaw from within the African-American community as part of a broader attempt to emphasize the service and bravery of Black soldiers for political purposes to advance the cause of civil rights in a reunited nation.
Shaw’s place in the pantheon of Civil War heroes was solidified in 1897 when Augustus Saint-Gaudens unveiled a dramatic relief sculpture that captured the regiment’s famous march through Boston in 1863. Like other efforts to commemorate Shaw in Boston, this one also took root in the Black community. Shaw’s mother, also proved instrumental in seeing this project through to its completion. As part of the unveiling, veterans of the 54th Massachusetts once again marched up Beacon Street and passed the memorial located directly in front of the State House. Speakers, including Booker T. Washington and William James honored Shaw as a champion of emancipation and civil rights. This remained the only memorial dedicated to the roughly 200,000 African Americans who fought in the United States army for roughly the next century.
This memory of Shaw as a champion of emancipation and civil rights was never uncontested. In the decades following the war hundreds of statues and memorials were dedicated across the former Confederacy that reminded white southerners that even in defeat their cause remained righteous. Generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were held up as Christian warriors.
In contrast to African Americans, who defended their record of fighting for the Union and helping to eradicate slavery, white Southerners insisted that their slaves remained loyal to their masters and the Confederacy—all in an attempt to reclaim control of their state governments and reestablish white supremacy. By the early twentieth century the memory of Black Union soldiers
The racism that undergirded this southern narrative of the war was never alien to the city of Boston. Even as Shaw’s family and Black veterans celebrated the unveiling of the Shaw Memorial, the city was fast becoming one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. African Americans, who lived just steps from the State Capitol and the Shaw Memorial on Beacon Hill, and who long campaigned for the abolition of slavery, civil rights, and the recruitment of Black soldiers, were forced to move to Dorchester and Roxbury.
In 1915 the highly controversial movie Birth of a Nation debuted on Tremont Street, just a few blocks from the Shaw Memorial. The movie’s depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, who saved the white South from marauding Black soldiers during Reconstruction and heralded the return of white supremacy, outraged Boston’s Black community. Black activists such as William Trotter, whose father served in the 54th’s sister regiment the 55th Massachusetts, led protests against the movie theatre that resulted in violence and arrests.
Memory of Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts remained contested throughout the rest of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.
III: Why a New Biography of Robert Gould Shaw
Interest in Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry remains high. In December 2019 the movie Glory marked its 30th anniversary with a limited release in movie theaters across the country. In September 2020 the move was added to the Netflix catalog. The discovery of the battle sword that Shaw carried at Battery Wagner resurfaced in 2017 and was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where it is on permanent display. The recent opening of Reconstruction National Park, overseen by the National Park Service in Beaufort, South Carolina, is exposing visitors to the story of Shaw and his men. Finally, the restoration of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to Shaw and his men on the Boston Common is expected to be completed later this year. The unveiling of the restored memorial will likely receive extensive national media coverage.
IV: Other Books
It’s been over twenty years since the publication of Russell Duncan’s book, Where Death and Glory Meet: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (1999). At just over 120 pages the book offers little more than the extensive introduction that Duncan authored for the publication of his Blue-Eyed Child of Freedom: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1992). The short chapters offer little opportunity to probe key aspects of Shaw’s personal and military life, particularly his relationship with his family, the evolution of his outlook on the war between 1861 and 1863 and especially his understanding of race and the men in the 54th Massachusetts. The publication of Lorien Foote’s Seeking the One Great-Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth Century Reform (2003) and Joan Waugh’s Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell (1997) are important sources for exploring the influence of family on Shaw’s character and his development as an officer during the war.
Douglas Egerton’s recent book Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (2016) is the most accessible history of the 54th Massachusetts as well as the other two Black units raised in the state. The collection of essays in Hope & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment focus on a wide range of subjects related to the organization, social dynamics, and memory of the regiment. The continued availability of Luis Emilio’s memoir, A Brave Black Regiment as well as the publication of Corporal James Henry Gooding’s letters in On the Altar of Freedom attest to the continued interest in the men who served in the 54th
A Glorious Fate will also benefit from new scholarship on the history of United States Colored Troops. In addition to regimental histories, historians such as John David Smith, Keith Wilson, Noah Andre Trudeau, Richard Reid, and Brian Taylor, to name just a few, have examined racial atrocities involving USCTs, the recruitment of Black soldiers, the support of enlistment from within the Black community and the relationships that these soldiers maintained with families during their deployment. New scholarship on the escalation of violence during the war at the intersection of the battlefield, civilian populations, and slavery will also inform the interpretation that emerges in this study.
V: Completion of the Project
My hope is to have a completed manuscript within a year of signing a contract. A good deal of the research has been completed and though COVID continues to make it difficult to travel many of the most important manuscript sources are available in digital format through the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Athenaeum, and Harvard University. Once these institutions reopen (hopefully at some point this summer) it will be easy for me to access collections that are still needed. I am also hoping to travel to Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina to do additional research at some point later this year or early next year.
VI: About the Author
I am an author and educator based in Boston. My scholarship focuses primarily on the history and memory of Black Civil War soldiers. My first book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, was published in 2012 followed by Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth in 2019. I also edited a collection of essays, titled Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (2017).
My essays and op-eds have appeared in popular Civil War magazines such as The Civil War Monitor and Civil War Times as well as, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Daily Beast. Essays on the history of the 54th Massachusetts have appeared in The Atlantic and Smithsonian Magazine. In addition to my published work, I have lectured widely on both the history of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts and have worked with educators on how to incorporate Glory in their classrooms.