On May 25th, 1862, Robert Gould Shaw watched with his comrades in the Second Massachusetts Infantry as Stonewall Jackson defeated General Nathan Banks at the First Battle of Winchester. General Banks with his 6,500 Union troops would meet Stonewall Jackson’s near 16,000, where the federal’s would suffer massive losses before their retreat. Jackson’s offensive resulted in the loss of roughly 2,000 Union troops, with 62 killed, 240 wounded, and over 1700 missing in action. Of the 62 Union killed that day, Robert Shaw was nearly among them, for the ball from a confederate musket struck him in the breast. Surprised that he had not been knocked off his feet and surprised further that he had not just been killed, Shaw found that his pocket watch had stopped the enemy ball and spared his life. This moment, unbeknown to Shaw or any other man on the battlefield, would go on to change history and help shape a national acceptance of an entire race held in bondage during the war. Shaw would go on to lead the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as their Colonel, the first volunteer regiment of African American soldiers ever organized in the United States, and would endure the hardships of close-minded comrades, superiors and civilians as he fought for the opportunity to prove that his men were just as good a soldier as any other, and far braver than most.
Shaw entered the Second Massachusetts Infantry as a Volunteer officer and spent his time observing the effects of things such as morale and proper drill on the men, and how it impacted them both in combat and in camp life. A character of the discipline he had observed and strived for, Shaw’s superiors commended him for a “coolness under fire,” despite being new to the field of battle and commanding men in combat. Shaw was eager to have his regiment proven in the eyes of the Union after his regiment suffered two losses and over 200 men killed in action in just four months, and his wish came true in September, around the same time Lincoln had prepared the Emancipation Proclamation. Shaw and the Second Massachusetts marched under General George B. McClellan on September 17th, 1862, when the Army of the Potomac clashed with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle of Antietam is still the single bloodiest day in American History. With 87,000 union troops clashing into 38,000 confederates, a combined number of 22,700 men were killed, wounded or reported captured or missing and Shaw, once again, was just narrowly spared. A spent musket ball hit Shaw in the side of his neck, leaving a bruise but not managing to break the skin. Much like his first brush with death, Shaw heavily downplayed how close to being killed he was in his letters home, but letters from his fellow-officers to their families recorded both incidents as they were: near miracles.
Five days after Antietam, Abraham Lincoln announced the emancipation proclamation. While Slavery had been one of the direct causes of the war, the North’s objective absorbed the responsibility of freeing an entire race from bondage and in early 1863, Shaw’s father approached him with the offer to take command of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts; the first all-black regiment in American history. Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts had petitioned for the raising of black troops to fight the rebellion since early in the war and inquired with Shaw’s father about finding a commander for the regiment should it ever come to life. Francis Shaw did not hesitate to recommend his son for the position. Robert was not only an abolitionist but now a veteran and battle-tested leader, worthy of taking the reigns of his own regiment. When Shaw’s father approached him with the offer, Shaw initially declined out of loyalty to the Second Massachusetts, though felt honored by the proposal and didn’t want to accept the position solely out of his sense of duty to do so, especially if he couldn’t do the job justice. Shaw had a sleepless night as he reconsidered his decision, and in a letter to his wife, wrote that he felt as though he had made the wrong decision almost immediately after his Father had left. Shaw telegrammed his parents that he had changed his mind, and in doing so became Colonel of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Shaw wrote to his wife, days after accepting the position, “I shall feel that what I have to do is prove that a negro can be made a good soldier,” and in time as Colonel would find that the practices of discipline he’d learned from marching with his men in the Second would make his troops into as fine a soldier as any. Colored troops were not embraced by all with open arms, but Shaw did not care about the popularity of his regiment, nor what would be said about his reputation or his men. The volunteer regiment filled with men eager to fight for the Union, and Shaw had every intention of training and readying the Fifty Fourth for the same combat which he witnessed during his previous campaigns. Many of those in charge of the Regiment’s movements sought to have the Fifty Fourth assigned solely to manual labour tasks, while others figured the regiment should simply exist as a spectacle for morale. Colonel Shaw was stubborn in his leadership and refused to treat or train his men any differently than white soldiers, drilling them just as hard and refusing to accept the idea that they should never see combat. The men had signed contracts during enlistment to be paid the same rate as the rest of the Union army, at thirteen dollars per month, but Congress failed to fill this promise and offered the Fifty-Fourth’s colored troops an inferior ten dollars instead. Shaw, whom had been drilling and training his men just as hard, if not harder, than any other soldier in the entire northern army, refused pay along with the entire regiment until Congress agreed to correct the decision. This boycott of salary would continue until long after Shaw’s time as Colonel, and from nearly the conception of the Fifty Fourth he and all his men went without pay.
When sufficiently trained and drilled, Shaw and his regiment were dispatched to South Carolina, where Shaw would find the first obstacle preventing his men from proving themselves in combat. The Colonel was no stranger to wanting his men proven in a fight and having to wait a long time for it, as he had in the Second Massachusetts, but the stakes were far higher now than simple soldiers pride. With black men and women now free from chains, Shaw understood the nation would have a long journey to accepting these freed people as equal to themselves, and the proof that colored soldiers could fight for the flag just as valiantly, bravely and mortally as their white comrades was an instrumental factor in that struggle. Arrived in South Carolina, Colonel Shaw and his men were paired with James Montgomery, a Colonel from Ohio leading the Second South Carolina Volunteer Infantry; a colored regiment like Shaw’s elected shortly after the fifty fourth. Shaw, at first surprised to see another colored regiment, was quickly upset at the lack of discipline in Montgomery’s ranks. James Montgomery was an abolitionist, no doubt, but still a firm believer that african americans were inferior to whites, and spent no time training or drilling his men. Instead, at Shaw’s disgust, he would simply order his untrained troops to pillage and burn towns along the South Carolina coast. Montgomery was also known to shoot any of his soldiers whom he deemed out-of-line. One of the first times Shaw rode with Montgomery, their regiments marching together, the Ohio Colonel ordered Shaw and his men to aid in the burning of the town Darien. Shaw refused, but Montgomery was set on destroying the town, civilian-occupied or not, and carried out the burning anyhow. Backlash fell upon Shaw almost immediately, as newspapers hailed the action a barbaric one and attempted to cite the incident as proof that black soldiers should be unable to carry rifles or fight for the union. Shaw was heavily disheartened by the event, worried his men wouldn’t get the chance to prove themselves now that he’d been associated with the actions of Montgomery, but on July 15th, 1863, opportunity shone on Shaw’s men, and his spirits were lifted. While serving on picket duty in James Island, South Carolina, Shaw’s men were charged by an unexpected Confederate force and managed to stand their ground, preventing the enemy from flanking both themselves and a neighboring white regiment. This feat in battle proved the Fifty Fourth as worthy of their uniforms and, in Shaw’s eyes, “wiped out the remembrance of the Darian affair.” With Montgomery reassigned to another task and Shaw’s victory earning him credence among fellow officers, his ability to grasp opportunity broadened severely.
The defense by his men in James Island was a major step in Shaw’s eyes, but he knew it was only the first of many that would be needed for americans to recognize this race of people as equals. Whether Shaw knew this struggle would continue for centuries beyond his life is unclear, but in the time he was given, he carried this push forward more than any man in his shoes may have. Still gleaming from their victory, Shaw wasted no time grabbing the next available opportunity laid before him to prove the worth of his men. When commanders in South Carolina expressed the need to seize Fort Wagner from the confederate army, a seemingly impenetrable fortress only attackable by one regiment at a time due to it’s position on the coast, Shaw volunteered his men for the assault.
History had proven to the spectator that Shaw’s life was brought to this point by an unfathomable amount of luck and chance. Not drafted into the military, but rather a volunteer, Shaw set his own path to this moment out of his sense of duty to the Union. His parents happened to be abolitionists and raised him to abhor the institution of slavery, accepting these men in bondage as no different and no lesser to himself even when most of his friends and company preached of their inferiority. Colonel Shaw’s initial rejection of the opportunity to lead the Fifty Fourth could have been the end of his connection to the regiment, but in a last-minute change of heart, Shaw took fate by the reigns and forced the American people for generations to understand a little clearer that this race of people forcibly brought to our nation and enslaved were no lesser than any man or woman, and that the color of their skin did not define their quality or their spirit. The Fifty Fourth Massachusetts would have still been conceived without Shaw, but as leaders like Montgomery have taught history, it is just as likely the first all-black regiment would have landed in the hands of those undedicated to the strive for proving the equality of these men, and instead into the hands of some contempt with using them for manual labor or pillagers of secessionist towns. Shaw trained and drilled his soldiers as hard as any white regiment, conditioned them to the same discipline which he endured himself as an enlisted man, and took them into battle with more heart and ferocity than most soldiers could muster. When Shaw volunteered his men to lead the charge on Fort Wagner, he knew very well that many of his troops would fall during the assault, and decided to lead the advance on-foot at the head of his regiment instead of at it’s rear. Whether the attack failed or succeeded, Shaw knew the country would learn of the first african american regiment’s sacrifice that day, as soldiers and equals to their countrymen, and carriers of the country’s flag.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw fell during the failed assault on Fort Wagner in July of 1863. He was twenty five years old. The fateful charge on the confederate stronghold resulted in the loss of nearly 250 members of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts with another 900 wounded and 400 missing in action. The battle, an overwhelming confederate victory, did not dampen the north’s views on the regiment, but instead glorified it, making the fallen Colonel a martyr for the Union and the perception of colored troops as men worthy of the uniform and due the respect of the Nation. Robert Shaw gave a foothold to post-slavery african americans in proving their equality to a close-minded white nation, by fighting for their opportunity to defend the North. Had it not been for the watch in his pocket when struck at the First Battle of Winchester, Shaw would have never lived to see the conception of the Fifty Fourth, and the nation could have emerged from the war between the states as close-minded to their newly freed countrymen as they were at the start of the conflict. Due to the sacrifice of the regiment that day, our country was forced to see the men as they were, regardless of pre-established prejudice or opinion, and the fifty fourth sacrificed their lives for the Union, with Shaw at their front, pushing the country closer to acceptance than ever before.
In a letter to his mother in 1862, Shaw wrote home in response to news that his cousin had been killed in combat, serving under a separate regiment, “why should he be killed a month after leaving home, while I have been out for twenty months without a scratch? It must be all chance; for if he had lived, he would probably have done more good in the world than I ever shall.” Colonel Shaw was spared an understanding of the scope his actions would have upon the nation, and was killed before he could witness the effect it had. When Shaw’s body was found by southern troops amid the corpses of his men, they stripped his sword from his person and buried him in a mass grave out of disrespect for leading colored soldiers. Confederate General Johnson Hagood told a Union prisoner of war that had Shaw been in command of white troops, his body would have been returned, but “as it is; I shall bury him in the common trench with the niggers that fell with him.” After the war, Union forces set-out to recover Shaw’s body from the mass grave in order to give him a proper burial. Shaw’s father, upon hearing of this effort, telegrammed Union officers to cease this action immediately. Thinking only of his son’s commitment to his men and the sacrifice he’d made for them, he wrote, “we would not have his body removed from where it lies, surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers.”
Colby Torbett is a Criminology major and a Senior at UNCW, currently enjoying his third semester at the University. Before becoming a Seahawk, Torbett obtained his Associates Degree at Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College. Torbett has always found great fascination in the American Civil War and hopes to continue learning and writing on it’s many extraordinary stories in the future.