A Tribute to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

On July 18, 1863, Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and 272 members of 54th Massachusetts Infantry, perhaps the most famous regiment of African-American troops during the war, were killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.

Fort Wagner stood on Morris Island and was a massive earthwork, 600 feet wide and built of sand piled 30 feet high. The only approach to the fort was across a narrow stretch of beach bounded by the Atlantic on one side and a swampy marshland on the other. Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts were chosen to lead the attack of July 18.

Shaw was a member of an abolitionist family and took part in the 1862 Antietam & Shenandoah Valley. The 54th Massachussetts regiment included two of Frederick Douglass’s sons and the grandson of Sojourner Truth.

Union troops had to march 1,200 yards down the beach to the stronghold, facing a hail of bullets from the Confederates. Shaw’s troops and other Union regiments breeched the walls at two points but were unable to take the fort. Over 1,500 Union troops fell or were captured; the Confederates’ lost 222.

Despite the failure of the overall mission, this battle proved that African-American forces could excel in battle.

Shaw’s death was heavily covered for the next year in many of the abolitionist and Afrcian-American newspapers. These are a few examples from the Accessible Archives database.

Poetry — To Robert Gould Shaw

Buried by South Carolinians under a pile of twenty-four Negroes.

On Alaric, buried in Busento’s bed,
The slaves, the stream who turned, were butchered thrown,
That, so his grave eternally unknown,
No mortal on the scourge of God might tread.
Thou, nobler hero, nobler grave hast won,
In Wagner’s trench, beneath brave freemen hid,
By Vandals on thee piled,—a pyramid,
That to all coming time shall make thee known.
In death, as life, round thee their guard they keep;
And, when next time they hear the trumpet’s sound,
Will they, with thee, on heaven’s parapet leap:
The four-and-twenty elders on the ground
Their crowns before thy lowly comrades lay,
While “Come up higher, Friend!” thou hear’st God may.

Cambridge, Mass. L.H.

Collection: The Liberator
Publication: THE LIBERATOR
Date: October 30, 1863
Location: Boston

The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Michael Liu, on Flickr

The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Michael Liu

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

To the Editor of the London Daily News:

The interest with which the account of the death of Colonel Shaw at the head of his negro troops was read in the papers of the day, must have been vastly quickened by Mrs. Gaskell’s narrative in the last number of the Macmillan.

Whatever verdict posterity may pass on Stonewall Jackson, Robert Gould Shaw will be a hero in all time.

If the admirers of Southern gallantry could raise a memorial to the one–could not the friends of the North and of Freedom contribute a memorial to the other?

Such a memorial would be a graceful tribute of sympathy at the present day, and in the days to come a record that there were at least some Englishmen whose hearts beat for freedom in that great struggle; and no nobler epitaph were needed than the reply of his enemies to the request for his body: “We have buried him with his niggers.”

I think it only wants a beginning, and I for one would be glad of the privilege of contributing.

I am,

&C., G.

Collection: The Liberator
Publication: The Liberator
Date: January 22, 1864
Title: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Location: Boston

Robert Gould Shaw Monument by Patrick M

Robert Gould Shaw Monument by Patrick M

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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