Early Life & Childhood
Robert Gould Shaw was born on October 10, 1837, in Boston to a family of abolitionists. His parents, Francis George and Sarah Blake Shaw were philanthropists and quite wealthy.
He had four sisters, namely, Anna, Josephine, Sussana, and Ellen. He earned the namesake of his grandfather, who left a large inheritance to his parents.
At the age of 5, he moved to West Roxbury and later, to Staten Island, New York. He attended ‘Second Division of St. John’s College.’
He left the school in 1851 before graduation and attended a boarding school in Switzerland. After two years, he was again transferred to another school in Germany where Shaw enjoyed more personal freedom.
He attended ‘Harvard University’ in 1859 but dropped out before graduating, in 1859. He moved to Staten Island to work in a mercantile company called ‘Henry P Sturgis and Company’ but didn’t enjoy the work life there.
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In 1861, after the outbreak of ‘American Civil War,’ Shaw enlisted in a New York Regiment and served with the ‘7th New York Militia.’ He was soon commissioned as a second lieutenant in the ‘2nd Regiment of the Massachusetts’ infantry.
For the next year and a half, he fought with the Regiment in the ‘Battle of Winchester,’ the ‘Battle of Cedar Mountain,’ and the ‘Battle of Antietam.’ In 1862, after working rigorously hard for his Regiment, Shaw was promoted to the post of Captain.
Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts expressed his wish to form the Union army’s first African-American Regiment. He sought to offer the reigns of the same to Shaw.
Thus, the Governor offered Shaw to handle the command of the ‘54th Massachusetts Regiment.’ Even though Shaw was a rebel by nature, he initially turned down the offer.
One possible reason for saying no to the offer could have been his loyalty toward his then Regiment. Ultimately, Shaw changed his mind and accepted the offer probably to please his mother.
Thus, the infantry was formed in 1863, which was an amalgamation of colored troops. On 31 March 1863, he was made the Major and two weeks later, he became the colonel.
During this time, the ‘55th Regiment’ was also formed. The Regiment travelled across places, such as, Charleston, Royal Island, and St. Simons Island, until they were commanded to put fire to the defenseless town of Georgia.
Shaw opposed the order and was completely outraged by the behavior of the troops for stripping the town off valuables and livestock. The actions were commended under the leadership of senior officer, Colonel James Montgomery.
The shining moment of Shaw’s career came when he was put under the command of General Quincy Gilmore to take part in the second attempt to defeat the ‘Confederates’ at the ‘Fort Wagner.’ He was transferred to Charleston, South Caroline to march toward the Fort.
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The ‘Battle of Fort Wagner’ began on July 18, 1963. Even though the ‘Confederates’ were well-armed and had advanced weapons and strategies, Shaw urged his troops to move forward fearlessly.
He led his men by encouraging words like ‘Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!’ He was a hero during the assault at the Fort.
However, he was shot in the chest three times during the early hours of the battle. Even so, he, along with his troops was fought fiercely and fearlessly.
The battle resulted in the loss of the Union. The ‘Confederate’ General, Johnson Hagood retuned the bodies of others but refused to hand over Shaw’s body to the Regiment.
He was buried along with other ‘Confederates’ in the trench. This was intended as an act of insult towards Shaw.
However, his father proudly stated that the most appropriate burial for a soldier was ‘the field on which he has fallen.’ He was against the army’s effort to recover the remains of his son’s body.
Even so, the Union army reburied all the remains of Shaw at the ‘Beaufort National Cemetery’ in Beaufort, South Carolina. Shaw’s Regiment suffered a lot of loss and yet he was remembered for his contribution in bringing the best of the African-American troops.
He was also against slavery, racism, and other wrongdoings.
Awards & Achievements
A memorial in his honor, ‘Robert Gould Shaw Memorial’ was erected on the ‘Boston Common’ in May of 1897. The monument was built by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
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An annual commemoration is held on Shaw’s birthday every year at his memorial at Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island, New York. The memorial was built by his family.
Shaw dropped out of ‘Harvard University.’ However, his contribution earned him a mention in the tablets of honor of the prestigious University’s ‘Memorial Transept.’
African-American poet Benjamin Griffith Brawley wrote a poem titled ‘My Hero’ and dedicated the same to Shaw. Another English poet Robert Lowell wrote a poem titled ‘For the Union Dead’ in praise of Shaw and the same was published in his 1964 collection.
The 1989 film titled ‘Glory’ was based on his life and the battle of ‘54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.’ There was also a mention of him in Colm Toibin's novel ‘The Master’ (2004).
During his time in the army, Shaw wrote more than 200 letters to his friends and family. These letters are exhibited in the ‘Houghton Library’ at the ‘Harvard University.’
A fine collection of his letters is also available digitally via ‘Digital Facsimiles.’ In 2017, Shaw’s famous sword, which he carried on the battlefield at the time of his death, was discovered in his family home.
It was submitted to the ‘Massachusetts Historical Society,’ which put it on public display on the birth anniversary of Shaw that year.
Personal Life & Legacy
Shaw met his future wife, Anna Kneeland Haggerty in New York in 1861. They met at an Opera Party.
The couple got engaged in 1862. The two got married on 2 May, 1863 in New York City even after the families on both side had their objections.
Shaw died at the age of 25 on July 18, 1863 during the ‘Battle of Fort Wagner.’ Anna became a widow after almost three years of getting married to Shaw.
Anna never remarried and died in 1907 due to failed health.