Shaw was best known for commanding the all-black regiment the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Killed in battle, Shaw became the subject of the 1989 film "Glory."

Conflict Period:
Civil War (Union) 1
Army 1
Colonel 1
October 10, 1837 1
Boston, Massachusetts 1
Massachusetts 2
July 18, 1863 1
Morris Island, SC 1

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Personal Details

Robert G Shaw 2
Age in 1860: 22 2
October 10, 1837 1
Boston, Massachusetts 1
Massachusetts 2
Male 2
Estimated Birth Year: 1838 2
July 18, 1863 1
Morris Island, SC 1
Cause: Killed in the Battle Of Fort Wagner 1
Place: Richmond County, New York 2
From: 1860 2
Minor Civil Division: The Township Of Castleton 2
Mother: Sarah Blake Sturgis 3
Father: Francis George Shaw 3
Anna Kneeland Haggerty 3
1863 3

Civil War (Union) 1

Army 1
Colonel 1
Service Start Date:
1861 1
Service End Date:
1863 1
54th Massachusetts Infantry 3
7th New York Militia; 2nd Massachusetts Infantry; 54th Massachusetts Infantry 3
Institution: Harvard University 3
Place: Cambridge, Massachusetts 3
From: 1856 3
To: 1859 3

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Robert Gould Shaw - Colonel, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry

Robert Gould Shaw

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 theSecond Battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.

He is the principal subject of the 1989 film Glory.

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

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, andAntietam.[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.

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 negroes 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

Shaw is well known for the over 200 letters he wrote to his family and friends during the Civil War.Template:Needed They are currently located in the Houghton Library at Harvard UniversityDigital 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.

Colonel Robert G Shaw

"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.


Despite his image in the 1989 film Glory, Robert Gould Shaw was a reluctant leader of the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first African American regiments in the Civil War. At the time he took command of the 54th in 1863, Shaw was 25 years old and had already taken part in several battles with his old regiment, the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, including engagements at Cedar Mountain and Antietam. Shaw was hesitant to leave his comrades for service in a regiment that he doubted would ever see action. 

Born to a prominent Boston abolitionist family in 1837, Shaw did not share the passion of his parents for freeing the slaves. As a young man, he spent several years studying and traveling in Europe before attending Harvard University from 1856 to 1859. Unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, Shaw dropped out before completing his studies.


When war came in 1861, Shaw seemed to find a purpose, and he immediately enlisted in the 7th New York Infantry, and served in the defense of Washington, DC for 30 days, after which the regiment was dissolved. In May of that year, Shaw joined the 2nd Massachusetts as a second lieutenant, serving for two years and attaining the rank of Captain.


Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, a strong abolitionist, recruited Shaw in March of 1863 to raise and command one of the first regiments of African American troops in the Union army, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Initially taking the command to appease his mother, Shaw eventually grew to respect his men and believed that they could fight as well as white soldiers. He was eager to get his men into action to prove this. When he learned that black soldiers were to receive less pay than whites, Shaw led a boycott of all wages until the situation was changed.  


On May 28, 1863, Shaw led the 54th in a triumphant parade through Boston to the docks, where the regiment departed for service in South Carolina. Shaw had married Annie Kneeland Haggerty just 26 days before.


Initially assigned to manual labor details, the 54th did not see real action until a skirmish with Confederate troops at James Island on July 16. Two days later, Shaw and his men were among the units chosen to lead the assault onBattery Wagner, part of the defenses of Charleston. Shaw was killed in the charge, bravely urging his men forward, but the 54th had proven that they were as brave as anyone, black or white.


Confederate General Johnson Hagood refused to return Shaw’s body to the Union army, and to show contempt for the officer who led black troops, Hagood had Shaw’s body buried in a common trench with his men. Rather than considering this a dishonor, Shaw’s father proclaimed “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!”


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