Robert Gould Shaw bigraphy, stories - Union United States Army officer

Robert Gould Shaw : biography

October 10, 1837 - July 18, 1863

Robert Gould Shaw (October 10, 1837 – July 18, 1863) was an American officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. As Colonel, he commanded the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which entered the war in 1863. He was killed in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.

He is the principal subject of the 1989 film Glory, where he is portrayed by Matthew Broderick.

Early life and career

Shaw was born in Boston to a prominent abolitionist family. His parents, Francis George and Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, were Unitarian philanthropists and intellectuals who encouraged their five children to study, learn and become involved in their communities. The family lived off an inheritance left by Shaw's merchant grandfather, also named Robert Gould Shaw (1775–1853). Shaw had four sisters: Anna, Josephine, Susannah and Ellen.

He moved with his family to a large estate in West Roxbury, adjacent to Brook Farm when he was five. In his teens, Shaw spent some years studying and traveling in Switzerland, Italy, Hanover, Norway, and Sweden. His family moved to Staten Island, New York, settling there among a community of literati and abolitionists, while Shaw attended the lower division of St. John's College, the equivalent of high school in the institution that became Fordham University. From 1856 until 1859, Shaw attended Harvard University, where he was a member of the Porcellian Club, but he withdrew before graduating. He would have been a member by primogeniture of the Society of the Cincinnati had he survived his father.

Civil war

After Abraham Lincoln's election and the secession of several Southern states, Shaw joined the 7th New York Militia and marched with it to the defense of Washington, D.C., in April 1861. The unit served only 30 days. In May 1861, Shaw joined the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry as a second lieutenant, later taking part in the battles of Winchester, Cedar Mountain, and Antietam while with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry.

Shaw was approached by his father while in camp in late 1862 to take command of a new All-Black Regiment. At first he declined the offer, but after careful thought, he accepted the position. Shaw's letters clearly state that he was dubious about a free black unit succeeding, but the dedication of his men deeply impressed him, and he grew to respect them as fine soldiers. On learning that black soldiers would receive less pay than white ones, he inspired his unit to conduct a boycott until this inequality was rectified. The enlisted men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (and the sister 55th) refused pay until Congress granted them full back pay at the white pay rate in August 1864.

Shaw was promoted to major on March 31, 1863, and to colonel on April 17.

On June 11, 1863, Shaw wrote about war crimes committed against the citizens of Darien, Georgia when the civilian population of women and children were fired upon, forced from their homes, their possessions looted, and the town burned. Shaw noted in a letter, "On the way up, Montgomery threw several shells among the plantation buildings, in what seemed to me a very brutal way; for he didn’t know how many women and children there might be." Shaw was initially ordered by Colonel James Montgomery to perform the burning but he refused. Shaw noted in a letter, "The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were, that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old. In theory it may seem all right to some, but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance, I myself don’t like it. Then he says, “We are outlawed, and therefore not bound by the rules of regular warfare”; but that makes it nonetheless revolting to wreak our vengeance on the innocent and defenceless."

Ironically, the original Scottish founders of Darien had signed the first Petition against the Introduction of Slavery in the colony of Georgia.

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