Robert Gould Shaw
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
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.