Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts

Figure 1.--The Robert Gould Shaw memorial to Black Civil War soldiers is one of Saint Gaudens major works. It honors the famed 54th Massachusetts, the first regiment of free Blacks raised in the north. Black soldiers played an important role in the Federal victory in the Civil War. Note the drummer boys at the front of the column.

The Robert Gould Shaw memorial to Black Civil War soldiers is one of Saint Gaudens major works. Robert Gould Shaw (1837-63) was born into a staunch Boston abolitionist family. He was a captain in the 2nd Massachusetts. Because of his family background, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew made Shaw a colonel and ordered him to raise and command the first regiment of black troops organized by any Northern state. This was made possible after Liincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. There had been 11 "colored" regiments raised mostly from freed slaves in occupied areas of the Conderate States. (The Emancipation Proclamation did not free he slaves in the bordr states.) Shaw recruiting free blacks from Massachusetts and other New England states. His regiment was mustered into the Federl army as the 54th Massachusetts (May 13, 1863). At the time, many Whites questioned the fughting ability of Black soldiers. The Regiment was deployed to South Carolina to participate in operatons to take Charleston. The South Carolina port was widely seen as the craddle of the Confederacy because the War began hre with the firing on Fort Sumter. Confederate forts on the island arounf Charleston prevented the Federal Navy from approaching Charleston itself. The Regiment paticipated in engagemebts on James Island, at Legaresville (July 13) and Secessionville (July 16). Next the Regiment was deployed to Morris Island. Shaw led the 54th in a combined assault with two brigades of white soldiers on a Confederate fort--Battery Wagner (July 18). The assault failed. Col. Shaw and about a quarter of his men were killed in one of the most famed charges of the Civil War. While Shaw failed to take Battery Wagner, in part because the white troops did not properly support him, the 54 Massachusetts firmly demonstrated the fighting ability of Black soldiers. Col. Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts were honored in a memorial created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The use of Black soldiers outraged the Coinfederates. The Condederates buried Shaw in a common grave with his men. his was meant as an insult. Shaw's parents, when informed of this, considered it an honor and what their son would have wanted. Black solfdiers went on to play a major role in the fighting during 1864 and '65. The Federal use of Black soldiers was successsful that the Conderates were considering forming their own Black regiments.


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Created: February 1, 2004
Last updated: February 1, 2004