Military Wiki
Robert Gould Shaw
Shaw in May 1863
Born (1837-10-10)October 10, 1837
Died July 18, 1863(1863-07-18) (aged 25)
Place of birth Boston, Massachusetts
Place of death Morris Island, South Carolina
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Union Army
Years of service 1861-1863
Rank Union army col rank insignia.jpg Colonel
Unit New York 7th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment
2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
Commands held 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

American Civil War:

Robert Gould Shaw (October 10, 1837 – July 18, 1863) was an American military officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. As Colonel, he commanded the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which entered the war in 1863. He was killed in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.

He is the principal subject of the 1989 film Glory.

Early life and education

Shaw was born in Boston to abolitionists Francis George and Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, well-known Unitarian philanthropists and intellectuals. The Shaws had the benefit of a large inheritance left by Shaw's merchant grandfather and namesake Robert Gould Shaw (1775–1853), and Shaw himself would have been a member by primogeniture of the Society of the Cincinnati had he survived his father.[1] Shaw had four sisters—Anna, Josephine, Susannah and Ellen)[citation needed];— scholarship and civic-mindedness inculcated into all the children.

When Shaw was five the family moved to a large estate in West Roxbury, adjacent to Brook Farm. In his teens he traveled and studied for some years in Europe. Later[when?] the family moved to Staten Island, New York, settling among a community of literati and abolitionists, while Shaw attended the lower division of St. John's College (comparable to a modern high school). From 1856 until 1859 he attended Harvard University, joining the Porcellian Club, but withdrew before graduating.[citation needed]

American Civil War

Early in the American Civil War, Shaw joined the 7th New York Militia and in April 1861 marched with it to the defense of Washington, D.C. In May 1861 he joined the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry as a second lieutenant, with which he fought in the First battle of Winchester, the Battles of Cedar Mountain, and Antietam.[citation needed]

Shaw was approached by his father while in camp in late 1862 to take command of a new All-Black Regiment. At first he declined the offer, but after careful thought, he accepted the position. Shaw's letters clearly state that he was dubious about a free black unit succeeding, but the dedication of his men deeply impressed him, and he grew to respect them as fine soldiers. On learning that black soldiers would receive less pay than white ones, he inspired his unit to conduct a boycott until this inequality was rectified. The enlisted men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (and the sister 55th) refused pay until Congress granted them full back pay at the white pay rate in August 1863.[citation needed]

Shaw was promoted to major on March 31, 1863, and to colonel on April 17.[citation needed]

On June 11, 1863, Shaw wrote about war crimes committed against the citizens of Darien, Georgia when the civilian population of women and children were fired upon, forced from their homes, their possessions looted, and the town burned. Shaw noted in a letter, "On the way up, Montgomery threw several shells among the plantation buildings, in what seemed to me a very brutal way; for he didn’t know how many women and children there might be." Shaw was initially ordered by Colonel James Montgomery to perform the burning but he refused. Shaw noted in a letter, "The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were, that the 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. In theory it may seem all right to some, but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance, I myself don’t like it. Then he says, “We are outlawed, and therefore not bound by the rules of regular warfare”; but that makes it nonetheless revolting to wreak our vengeance on the innocent and defenceless."[2]

Ironically, the original Scottish founders of Darien had signed the first Petition against the Introduction of Slavery in the colony of Georgia.

Death at the Battle of Fort Wagner

The Storming of Fort Wagner

The 54th Regiment was sent to Charleston, South Carolina to take part in the operations against the Confederates stationed there. On July 18, 1863, along with two brigades of white troops, the 54th assaulted Confederate Battery Wagner. As the unit hesitated in the face of fierce Confederate fire, Shaw led his men into battle by shouting, "Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!" He mounted a parapet and urged his men forward, but was shot through the heart and died almost instantly. According to the Colors Sergeant of the 54th, he was shot and killed while trying to lead the unit forward and fell on the outside of the fort.[citation needed]

The victorious Confederates buried him in a mass grave with many of his men, an act they intended as an insult.[3] Following the battle, commanding Confederate General Johnson Hagood returned the bodies of the other Union officers who had died, but left Shaw's where it was. Hagood informed a captured Union surgeon that "had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial; as it is, I shall bury him in the common trench with the n*****s that fell with him."[4] Although the gesture was intended as an insult, it came to be seen as an honor by Shaw's friends and family that he was buried with his soldiers.

Efforts were made to recover Shaw's body (which had been stripped and robbed prior to burial), but his father publicly proclaimed that he was proud to know that his son was interred with his troops, befitting his role as a soldier and a crusader for emancipation.[5] In a letter to the regimental surgeon, Lincoln Stone, Frank Shaw wrote:

"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!"[6]

Annie Haggerty Shaw, a widow at the age of 28, never remarried. She lived with her family in New York, Lenox and abroad, a revered figure and in later years an invalid. She died in 1907 and is buried at the cemetery of Church-on-the Hill in Lenox.[7]

Personal life


On May 2, 1863, Shaw married Anna Kneeland "Annie" Haggerty (1835–1907) in New York City. They decided to marry before the unit left Boston despite their parents' misgivings. They spent their brief honeymoon at the Haggerty place, Ventfort, in Lenox, Massachusetts.[8][citation needed]


Shaw is well known for the over 200 letters he wrote to his family and friends during the Civil War. They are currently located in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Digital facsimiles of this collection are publicly available. The book, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, includes most of his letters and a brief biography of Shaw. Peter Burchard also used these letters as the basis for his book One Gallant Rush, which is one of the books upon which the film Glory was based.[citation needed]



Memorial to Shaw and the 54th Regiment at the National Gallery of Art

Entry for Shaw in Harvard University's Memorial Hall

Shaw memorial at Mount Auburn Cemetery

  • In 1864, sculptor Edmonia Lewis created a bust of Shaw.
  • The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White, was built in his memory on Beacon and Park streets in Boston in 1897.

"There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man. There on horseback among them, in his very habit as he lived, sits the blue-eyed child of fortune, upon whose happy youth every divinity had smiled."—Oration by William James at the exercises in the Boston Music Hall, May 31, 1897, upon the unveiling of the Shaw Monument.[1]

  • Some drawings and plaster mock-ups also exist.[9] A patinated plaster cast of a slightly different design for the Shaw Memorial is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C..[10]
  • A monument to Shaw's memory was erected by his family in the plot at Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island, New York. An annual commemoration is held there on his birthday.
  • Although he did not graduate, Shaw's name is listed on the tablets of honor in Harvard University's Memorial Transept.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell was inspired by the life of Robert Gould Shaw to compose a text and poem in his honor, "Robert Gould Shaw", which appeared in Macmillan's Magazine (1864) and is available on The Gaskell Web.
  • The story of Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts was dramatized in the 1989 film Glory, with Shaw portrayed by Matthew Broderick.
  • Shaw, the 54th regiment, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' memorial are one of the subjects of Charles Ives's composition for orchestra, Three Places in New England.
  • The New England poet Robert Lowell referenced both Shaw and the Shaw Memorial in the poem "For the Union Dead" which Lowell published in his 1964 book of the same name.
  • African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote a poem entitled "Robert Gould Shaw", in which he states: "Since thou and those who with thee died for right/Have died, the Present teaches, but in vain!"[11]
  • African-American poet Benjamin Griffith Brawley wrote a memorial poem entitled "My Hero"[12] in praise of Robert Gould Shaw.
  • The neighborhood of Shaw, Washington, D.C., which grew out of freed slave encampments, bears his name.



  1. 1.0 1.1 Boston City Council (1897). Exercises at the dedication of the monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth regiment of the Massachusetts infantry (May 31, 1897). Boston: Municipal Printing Office. 
  2. Shaw, Robert Gould. "Written in Glory:Letters from the Soldiers and Officers of the 54th Massachusetts". Retrieved 29 April 2014. 
  3. Henry Cabot Lodge. Hero Tales from American History. p. 109. 
  4. Foote 2003, p. 119
  5. Buescher, John. "Robert Gould Shaw." Accessed 12 July 2011.
  6. Foote 2003, p. 120
  7. A History of Ventfort Hall, Cornelia Brooke Gilder and Joan R. Olshansky. Ventfort Hall Association, Lenox, 2002. pp.6-7.
  8. Hawthorne's Lenox, Cornelia Brooke Gilder with Julia Conklin Peters, Hawthorne's Lenox.  The History Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59629-406-6 pp.71-76
  9. National Gallery of Art (2011). "Augustus Saint-Gaudens". Artist. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art. 
  10. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (artist). "Shaw Memorial, 1900". The Collection. National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 2012-01-19. 
  11. Paul Laurence Dunbar. "Robert Gould Shaw". Poems. 
  12. Benjamin Griffith Brawley (1922). "My Hero". In James Weldon Johnson. The Book of American Negro Poetry, With an Essay on the Negro’s Creative Genius. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 


Further reading

  • Benson, Richard, Lay This Laurel : An album on the Saint-Gaudens memorial on Boston Common, honoring black and white men together, who served the Union cause with Robert Gould Shaw and died with him July 18, 1863, Eakins Press, 1973. ISBN 0-87130-036-2
  • Cox, Clinton (1991), Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, New York: Scholastic.
  • Duncan, Russell, ed., Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, University of Georgia Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8203-1459-5
  • Duncan, Russell, Where Death and Glory Meet : Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, University of Georgia Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8203-2135-4
  • Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead, Collected Poems, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2003, ISBN 0-374-12617-8
  • Burchard, Peter One Gallant Rush—Robert Gould Shaw & His Brave Black Regiment, St. Martin's Press, 1965. ISBN 0-312-03903-4
  • Emilio, Luis F., A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the 54th Massachusetts, 1863–1865, Da Capo Press, 1894. ISBN 0-306-80623-1
  • The Master by Colm Toibin relates Wilkie James's (younger brother of Henry and William James ) participation as an officer in the regiment.

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).