Col. Robert Gould Shaw, ex-1854
Commander, US Infantry, Civil War
Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston on October 10, 1837 to Francis Shaw and Sarah Blake Shaw, intellectually accomplished, staunch Unitarians and members of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In Robert's day, the family was one of the wealthiest in Boston, if not America. Both grandfathers, Shaw and Blake, had been successful traders and importers. Robert had an older sister, Anna, and three younger ones, Josephine, Susannah and Ellen. Their playmates included their 85 first cousins and the children of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
When Robert was very young, his parents moved from Boston to nearby West Roxbury, a property adjacent to Brook Farm, a short-lived communal living experiment that brought together intellectuals, artisans, farmers and teachers. As a result, the family had regular contact with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Charles Dana and other intellectual lights of that time and place — most of them abolitionists.
During Shaw’s early teens, the family relocated to the West New Brighton area of Staten Island to be near an eminent eye specialist in hopes of saving Robert's mother's diminishing vision. As it happened, Staten Island was also home to an important contingent of abolitionists and members of the Free Soil Party, who opposed the spread of slavery in the western part of the United States. On Sundays, the family usually traveled to Brooklyn to attend Plymouth Church, where Harry Ward Beecher preached.
At about the same time, Robert’s uncle, Joseph Coolidge Shaw, an 1840 graduate of Harvard College, converted to Catholicism while traveling in Rome having befriended members of the Oxford Movement, a group attempting to steer the Anglican Church in a more Roman Catholic direction. To the mortification of his family, Coolidge (as his family called him), left Harvard Law School to become a Catholic priest. Ordained in 1847, Fr. Shaw's next move was to enter the Society of Jesus. Coolidge the convert also somehow convinced the Shaws that young Robert should attend the Second Division of St. John’s College in Fordham, New York. And so, uncle and nephew would start together at Fordham in 1850, with Coolidge beginning his time in the Jesuit novitiate and Robert starting as a boarding student at what today is called Fordham Prep.
Both Shaw men had brief stays at Rose Hill. Coolidge contracted an aggressive, rapidly progressive form of tuberculosis. When doctors told him death was imminent, he asked to take his vows in the Society of Jesus early, which he did on March 4, 1851. He died six days later at age 30.
Perhaps his entry to Fordham was marred by his uncle’s sudden death, or perhaps he simply missed his large extended family. In any case, Robert's adjustment to Fordham went poorly, and the letters he sent his mother suggest that he had some growing up to do — not unlike most 13-year-old boys, though maybe to a greater degree. He told his mom he was so homesick that he often cried in front of his classmates. To quote his letters home:
“I wish you hadn’t sent me here.”
“I hate it like everything.”
“My old Teacher scolded me to-day because I didn’t do something he didn’t tell me to do, and I hate him.”
“I’d rather do anything than stay here.”
But stay he did, at least for a time, studying Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish. He also continued his work on the violin, which he had started as a young boy. Among his classmates were two of the three McMahon brothers. Like Shaw, the McMahons would be future Civil War heroes and Prep Hall of Honor inductees. Unlike Shaw, however, the brothers reveled in just about every aspect of their Rose Hill days.
The Shaws were world travelers, however, and the familial wanderlust spared young Robert additional time at Fordham. The entire family left on an extended tour of Europe in late 1851, and Robert ended up at a boarding school in Switzerland, where he stayed for two years.
Soon enough, he was complaining again to his mother of dissatisfaction and homesickness and hat the family had “left him behind.” From Neuchâtel:
“I hate to be here.”
“I keep thinking what you are all doing.”
“I shall be very glad to have more freedom when I leave here.”
His father relocated him to a school in Hanover, Germany, where a less rigid system of discipline allowed him more personal freedom. For Shaw this simply meant more time amusing himself. He would write to his mother: “It’s almost impossible not to drink a good deal, because there is so much good wine here.”
But yet, there were deeper currents flowing beneath the party-boy exterior. Though he could not at the time have thought himself able to commit to the Abolitionist Movement, at least to the degree that his parents had, when family friend Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Robert would read it over and over again, and was moved by the story and its anti-slavery sentiment. Moreover, from Europe, in a moment of emerging maturity, Shaw would write that his patriotism was growing as he encountered anti-Americanism among some Europeans. He told his parents he was considering attending West Point or joining the US Navy. Aware of his difficulties taking orders or toeing the line with authority figures, they did not take these ambitions seriously.
In 1856, Robert returned to the United States. He passed the admissions test for Harvard, and started there with the class of 1860. He was a member of the Porcellian Club and every other society at Harvard at the time, including the Hasty Pudding Club. But again he wrote to his long-suffering parents: “everything is stupid here,” and “I hate Cambridge.” In 1869, he left Harvard with no degree. He returned to Staten Island and began work with an uncle at the mercantile firm of Henry P. Sturgis and Company. As it turned out, Shaw did not like office routines, either.
Just when it seemed Robert might never grow up, he joined the 7th New York National Guard in the excitement after Abraham Lincoln’s election and the secession of the Confederate states. The 7th was among the first regiments to respond to Lincoln’s call to defend Washington, DC. On April 19, 1860, Shaw marched down Broadway with the 7th New York Militia on its way south. The 7th, in which many privileged New Yorkers enlisted for just 30 days, disbanded in early 1861.
For Robert, this marked a turning point. As the New York 7th fell apart, he joined the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry as a second lieutenant. The petulant, self-absorbed and spoiled boy had finally found his calling. The young man who could not find a way to adapt to the discipline of the civilian world — either as a student or businessman — quickly became a decent soldier and officer. In his introduction to Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, historian Russell Duncan writes that Gould became “a good soldier who followed orders and expected the same from others. He could be counted on when bullets flew and Rebels yelled.”
A member of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry for 20 months, Shaw fought at the First Battle of Winchester, the Battles of Cedar Mountain and Antietam. He was wounded twice. Duncan writes: "Shaw learned about the love that grows from depending on others for life. Parents, sisters, cousins, childhood and college friends were held dear, but that was not the same affection as that which a soldier reveals to a comrade on the field of battle, around the campfires of an army, or in the tents of a regiment.”
Shaw continued to write to his mother and other family members, but he never again whined. As noted by his biographer, Shaw would prove a capable officer, though not particularly stellar. Nonetheless, soldiers who knew him consistently remarked on his loyalty, gentleness and obedience.
In late 1862, his father, who counted Frederick Douglass among his friends, asked his 26-year-old son to consider taking command of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which was being created in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. When it was actually formed in 1863, it was the first documented African-American regiment formed in the North. Supporters appropriated a quote from Lord Byron: “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” Among recruits to the 54th were Charles and Lewis Douglass, sons of Frederick Douglass.
Shaw was reluctant. He had lost many friends in his regiment, and loyalty to them kept him anchored in the 2nd Massachusetts. Moreover, he may have resented his parents’ encouragement to accept the appointment with the 54th. His mother's words on the matter: “Well! I feel as if God had called you up to a holy work."
He also understood that if the regiment failed under his command, it would only fuel the arguments of the many who mocked this effort to include black soldiers in the Union Army. The 54th was considered by many to be a high-stakes gambit, and he was worried that the troops might not perform as well as white troops did. Despite his success in the military, his experience of people unlike himself was still very limited. Nonetheless, he overcame his initial reluctance and prejudices, took the command and was promoted to colonel. Black recruits began arriving at the regiment’s home, Camp Meigs in the Massachusetts town of Readville, now part of the Hyde Park neighborhood of the City of Boston.
On May 28, 1863, the 54th, consisting of 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white officers, assembled on the Boston Common, heard speeches given in their honor, took leave of their loved ones, marched to Battery Wharf and sailed out of Boston Harbor on a week-long trip to Hilton Head, and then to Beaufort, South Carolina.
On June 11, the 54th and Shaw were embroiled in a raid against the town of Darien, Georgia. Shaw’s superior, Colonel James Montgomery, pressed him into the raid, and he understood that only camp supplies would be taken from the residents. The actions of the Union troops went far beyond that, however. Montgomery ordered Shaw to burn the town. Shaw refused, but it was torched anyway. Shaw was shaken by the events in Darien, and he wrote in a letter that he had been told that "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. In theory it may seem alright to some, but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance, I myself don’t like it.” Colonel Shaw was also shrewd enough to realize that reports of the incident could easily be distorted and used by those who had opposed the creation of an all-black regiment.
In July of 1863, Shaw asked that the 54th be allowed the honor of leading the Union charge against Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor. One might wonder if the events of Darien made him eager to demonstrate the loyalty, skill and professionalism of his troops. He was also mindful of the symbolism of black troops leading the charge against Charleston and of the vindication it would provide to their supporters. In the days before the assault on the fort, Shaw told a friend that he was afraid of dying, that he missed his wife, as well as his friends from the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. But in front of his troops, he was the consummate leader.
On July 18, the day of the assault, Shaw instructed his men to write letters for their families; then he smoked a cigar and tried to speak with as many as possible, reminding them that the world was watching. The 54th led the charge, backed by two white brigades. Robert Shaw led his troops from the front, which his soldiers admired, against fierce Confederate fire, shouting “Forward fifty-fourth, forward!” Casualties were heavy, but Shaw and a small group of soldiers made it to Fort Wagner. Shaw ascended a parapet from which he continued to exhort his men, but he was shot multiple times and died instantly, falling into the fort. With Shaw down, Sergeant William Carney returned the colors to the Union side despite his own severe wounds. Thirty-seven years later, Sergeant Carney would become the first African-American man awarded the Congressional Medal Honor, in tribute to his actions that day.
Of the 600 men of the 54th who charged that day, 272 died or were wounded or captured. The attack on Fort Wagner was a failure and a huge loss of human life, but it turned the tide of public opinion about African-American soldiers. Survivors of the 54th expressed gratitude for the opportunity to fight. More black regiments soon formed.
Shaw’s body was stripped and robbed before his burial in a mass grave with the black soldiers who died with him. The Confederates intended this undignified burial as a last insult to Shaw. Efforts were later made to find and return his body to his family, but his father refused the help, saying “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company.” Historian Duncan says “The burial symbolized the brotherhood of man.”
Robert left a widow, Annie Kneeland Haggerty Shaw, whom he had married on May 2, 1863 in the Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan over the protestations of both sets of parents, Sarah Shaw especially. The couple spent less than a month together as man and wife. Annie would never remarry.
In 1897, the public had its first look at the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial on Beacon Street across from the State House in Boston. The 11-by-14-foot bronze sculpture depicts Colonel Shaw riding with his marching men, the angel of the Lord leading them all. It is the exquisite work of Irish-American artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens who had once collaborated on the interior of Trinity Church in Boston with another Prep Hall of Honor inductee, artist John LaFarge.
A hundred years later, the 1989 film Glory tells the story of the Massachusetts 54th. It stars Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington, a Fordham University alumnus who during his Rose Hill years had walked many of the halls and paths that Shaw had during his Second Division days over a century before.
There was a time when a very young Robert Gould Shaw might have objected, but looking back, we can say with certainty that the one-time unsettled Second Division boy truly did grow into a man of courage, conscience and principles with whom Fordham is proud to be connected.