On Boston Common, at the corner of Beacon and Park streets, stands what many consider to be the greatest public sculpture in the United States – The Shaw Memorial. The picture in this post is a shot I took of two of the twenty-three marching African American soldiers featured in the memorial. An excellent video on the sculpture is embedded below. The high-relief bronze memorial created by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens honors Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. It took Saint-Gaudens almost 14 years to complete his tribute and the unveiling occurred on Memorial Day in 1897. Thirty four years earlier in January 1863, the same month that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew sought to create an all-black regiment as part of his quota of troops from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This unit, known as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, would become the first all-black military unit raised in the North during the Civil War. Governor Andrew elected to commission white officers with military experience and firm anti-slavery principles to lead the unit. He wrote a letter to Francis Shaw, an abolitionist with Boston ties, about his plans and outlined his reasons for offering the command of the 54th to his son Robert Gould Shaw. Governor Andrew enclosed a letter to Robert Gould Shaw and asked his father to be sure he received it as quickly as possible. At this time, Robert was a Captain with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry and in winter camp in Stafford Courthouse, Virginia. Robert Gould Shaw had enlisted when the war began in 1861 and taken part in several battles including Cedar Mountain and Antietam. Francis George Shaw chose to hand deliver Governor Andrew’s letter to his only son Robert and visited him in Virginia.
Robert Gould Shaw initially chose to decline Governor Andrew’s offer but after more consideration and a desire to please his mother, Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, he agreed to accept the command and serve as colonel of the 54th Regiment. A few days later, Robert announced his engagement to Annie Haggerty. The two had met just before the war when Susanna, one of Robert’s sisters, invited Annie to a small gathering of family/friends attending the opera. They had kept up a steady correspondence when Robert was away fighting for the Union. Robert returned to Boston on February 15 when effort began in earnest to both recruit and train men for the 54th. Robert did take a short break for his wedding and honeymoon. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and Anna Kneeland Haggerty were married on May 2, 1863 in The Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in New York City. They spent four relaxing days in the Berkshires of Massachusetts before Shaw learned that he’d have to return before the week was out as the Governor had ordered his regiment to leave for the south in less than three weeks. Departure day was eventually set for May 28, 1863. On that day, at 9 am, 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white officers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment began a parade march through the streets of Boston in full dress uniform. Twenty-five-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw rode at the head of the column. Twenty thousand people turned out to see the regiment off. In the reviewing stands and peering from balconies along the parade route were such dignitaries as Governor John A. Andrew, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass whose sons Charles and Lewis Douglass were members of the 54th. Robert Gould Shaw’s family, including his mother, two of his four sisters and his wife, stood on the second floor balcony of the Sturgis home located at 44 Beacon Street. When Colonel Shaw arrived at their location, he looked up and raised his sword to his lips. His seventeen-year-old sister Ellen, recalling how she felt about her brother Rob at that very moment, later wrote, “his face was as the face of an angel and I felt perfectly sure he would never come back.”
After the parade, the men said goodbye to their families, boarded their transport ship and headed for South Carolina. On June 3, the transport arrived at the port of Hilton Head. A week later, the 54th took part in a raid that involved burning the town of Darien, Georgia – something that upset Colonel Shaw greatly. When Shaw learned in late June that his black troops would receive pay of only $10 per month instead of the $13 per month they had been promised (the same as white troops), he protested personally. The men vowed to accept no pay at all until the issue was resolved – and it eventually was, but not until nearly 18 months passed. Concerned that his men might not see any real action and have the chance to prove themselves, Colonel Shaw wrote to General George Strong on July 6 and asked that the 54th Massachusetts be placed under his command. This occurred a few days later and the regiment performed very honorably in its first major engagement at James Island, South Carolina on July 16. Shortly after the battle, the 54th began a two day excursion with only the hardtack they carried in their packs for food. Marching through mud flats and marsh, through thunderstorms and in the blazing sun, with the aid of two transports they made it to Morris Island on the afternoon of Saturday, July 18, 1863. Here, the heavily fortified Confederate Fort Wagner was located. The fort had been under Union bombardment for more than a day. Colonel Shaw met with General Strong and learned that there would be a frontal assault on Wagner that night. The General asked Shaw if the 54th would like to lead the attack. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw replied, “Yes”. Before joining his men, Colonel Shaw located Edward L. Pierce, a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune and gave him some letters and personal items to pass on to Shaw’s family if he was killed.
The assault on Fort Wagner would begin at dusk. Six Hundred soldiers from the 54th Regiment gathered less than 1,000 yards from the fort and waited. The 54th would lead the first wave of the assault while white troops from Connecticut, New York and New Hampshire regiments would follow in a second wave. What none of the men could have known at that time is the Union bombardment of the fort had been ineffective and its garrison of 1,700 Confederate soldiers would still be fighting at full strength. Both General Strong and Colonel Shaw addressed the men. Shaw encouraged the 54th saying, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.” At about 7:45 pm, Colonel Shaw stood at the front of his regiment and gave the command to advance at the quick-step. The men had their bayonets fixed and they knew the fort must be taken in hand-to-hand combat. With the Atlantic Ocean to the right and a creek on the left, the 54th moved along a narrow strip of beach and Shaw ordered the pace to double-quick while still some distance away. When they were about 100 yards out, the Confederate soldiers from Fort Wagner began firing with such ferocity that the 54th started to hesitate. But Colonel Shaw rallied the men and led a group of them through a ditch and to the top of the parapet. He was one of the first to climb the walls of the fort. Here, as he waved his sword and urged his men forward, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was shot in the chest and fell into the fort. When the flag bearer for the regiment was killed, Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford, Massachusetts grasped the flag and soon planted it on top of the parapet and held it there as the troops scaled the walls. In this detailed account, Carney mentions that he was shot several times during his attempt to prevent the flag from being captured by the enemy. When he reached the Union lines, Carney staggered into a hospital and amidst the cheers of his fellow soldiers – both black and white – told them, “Boys, I but did my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground.” He then collapsed from his wounds.
Following the battle, the Confederate commander of Fort Wagner buried Colonel Shaw in a pit with some of his black soldiers in an attempt to dishonor him. When Shaw’s parents learned this, it had the opposite effect. They said there could be no holier place than where he lies surrounded by his brave soldiers and requested that no attempts be made to recover his body. Of the 600 members of The 54th Massachusetts that led the first wave of the assault on Fort Wagner, nearly half made their way into the fort. Two hundred seventy two were either killed, wounded or captured. The charge had certainly proven the courage of black troops under fire and the bravery of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his fellow officers. Of the assault, even a Confederate officer named Iredell Jones could not help but proclaim, “The Negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a colonel as ever lived.” The story of Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts is told in the must-see 1989 movie Glory. In the film, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is played by actor Matthew Broderick. Below you can read original press coverage of the 54th Massachusetts including articles on recruiting and fundraising, their march through Boston on May 28, 1863 and the attack on Fort Wagner. Transcriptions are also provided.
On Memorial Day in 1897, during the ceremonies unveiling Saint-Gaudens magnificent memorial to Shaw and the 54th, sixty-five veterans of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment marched at the head of the parade. Among those veterans, carrying the American flag, was Sergeant William Carney. Three years later in 1900 his heroic efforts under fire to save the flag would finally be recognized when, nearly 37 years after the assault on Fort Wagner, Carney became the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. That Memorial Day in 1897, Sergeant Carney and his fellow veterans marched along the same route they had taken when they left Boston on May 28, 1863. This time, however, they traveled in the opposite direction, symbolically meeting and honoring their fellow soldiers and their leader Colonel Shaw – men who had not lived to see the lasting impact they had made.
Video link: PBS Documentary – Augustus Saint-Gaudens – The Shaw Memorial (embedded above)
“I know not, Mr. Commander, when, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you.”
- Governor John A. Andrew presenting the regimental colors to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at Camp Meigs in Readville on May 18, 1863.
Original Press Coverage — Recruiting and Fundraising for the 54th
The Liberator (Boston) February 20, 1863 — Meeting at the Joy Street Church
The Liberator (Boston) March 13, 1863 — Aid Meeting/Frederick Douglass’s Call to Arms
The Liberator (Boston) March 27, 1863 — Wendell Phillips Speaks at Fundraiser
“The very flower of grace and chivalry, he seemed to me beautiful and awful, as an angel of God come down to lead the host of freedom to victory.”
- Poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s description of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw leading the 54th Massachusetts Regiment down Beacon Street and off to war.
Original Press Coverage — the 54th Marches Through Boston
The New York Times May 30, 1863
The Liberator (Boston) June 5, 1863
The Liberator (Boston) June 26, 1863
“We’re in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night, and were out again all night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being very heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise of the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”
- From Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s final letter written from Morris Island on July 18, 1863.
Original Press Coverage — the Attack on Fort Wagner
The Liberator (Boston) July 31, 1863
New York Daily Tribune August 3, 1863
Harper’s Weekly August 15, 1863
“I saw them march along to the assault as steadily and sternly as the most veteran of the batallion. I saw them plunge bravely into the terrible abyss of death, which the darkness of night was rapidly concealing from view. As to how they fought, there is the long list of the fallen. As to how far they went, there is the fact of sixty being captured within the fort, and so admitted to me by the rebels under the flag of truce. I can testify that they bore their wounds with the heroic fortitude of the most determined veterans, and they died as nobly.”
-From U.S. Army Medical Inspector A.C. Hamlin’s letter to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson on the courage of the 54th at Fort Wagner.
A Poem honoring Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Bibliography and Resources on the 54th Massachusetts
To learn more about the 54th Massachusetts visit Boston’s Museum of African American History
Audio link: Glory Soundtrack – Closing Credits
Shortcut to this post: 54thMass.com
Promoting this post: Teach History presents