Thursday, July 18, 2013

Inspiring Leaders: Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry

This day in history July 18th 1863, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is killed leading his 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment against Fort Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw 54th MA Infantry
  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. 1,500 of his men were killed or captured with him.

Storming Fort Wagner by  Kurz & Allison  1890

  The victorious Confederates buried him in a mass grave with many of his men, an act they intended as an insult. Shaw's 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.

"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!"  -- Frank Shaw

  Despite the failure, the battle proved that African-American forces could not only hold their own but also excel in battle. Tens of thousands of African American men were recruited into the Union Army before the end of the Civil War forming 175 regiments or one-tenth the Union Army's strength.

The courage displayed by colored troops during the Civil War played an important role in African-Americans gaining new rights. 

"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."  --Frederick Douglass

  Shaw's father commissioned the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White, which 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.

Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, by
Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Iain C. Martin is the author of Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War, and The Greatest U.S. Marine Corps Stories Ever Told: Unforgettable Stories of Courage, Honor, and Sacrifice available at Amazon and

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