April 12-14, 1861
Robert Gould Shaw was a young Bostonian with impeccable family connections, strongly abolitionist parents, and battle experience. Born 10 October 1837, he was the only son of Francis Gould and Sarah Sturgis Shaw. Socially conscious and deeply devoted to intellectual and spiritual pursuits, the Shaws counted among their friends and associates such thinkers, writers, and reformers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
From 1856 until March 1859, Shaw attended Harvard University, but he withdrew before receiving his degree, entering his uncle’s business in New York instead. After Lincoln’s election and the secession of several southern states, Shaw joined the Seventh New York Regiment and marched with it to the defense of Washington in April 1861. The unit served only thirty days, but in the army Shaw at last found a vocation that commanded his enthusiasm and respect. In May he joined the Second Massachusetts Infantry as First Lieutenant.
During nearly two years of service in the Second, in which he rose to the rank of captain, Shaw was wounded at Antietam and saw some of his closest comrades fall in battle. But his resolve grew only firmer with each fight. In February 1863, Francis Shaw personally delivered Governor John Andrew’s offer of command of the new Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment to his son Robert, then at Stafford Court House, Virginia. Not certain he was “equal to the responsibility of such a position,” and no doubt reluctant to leave the regiment to which he was devoted, the younger Shaw at first declined the offer. But his strong sense of duty prevailed. “Now,” his mother wrote after he had accepted the colonelcy, “I feel ready to die, for I see you willing to give your support to the cause of truth that is lying crushed and bleeding.”
Although Shaw supported the idea of blacks in the military, his connection with African Americans had been more theoretical than actual, and he seems, at first, to have been surprised by the impressive soldiering abilities of his enlistees. The men’s accounts reveal that respect and understanding grew steadily between this very demanding commander and his troops during their weeks of training. Shaw died at age 26 with his troops on the parapet of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863.