The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first unit of African Americans organized in the North during the Civil War. They fought with bravery and distinction in Georgia and South Carolina from 1863 to 1865. The 54th was led by Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was the son of wealthy and influential abolitionists and had already fought in the war by the time the 54th was organized in 1863. Although he came from a family of abolitionists and despite being asked by the Governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, Robert Shaw was not sure if he wanted to lead African American soldiers. This lesson will focus on Shaw’s indecision in assuming the command of the 54th Massachusetts.
Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts represent some of America’s finest ideals, but are also evidence of how cruel man’s prejudices can be. Much, in the way of media, has been done to portray the epic battle these men faced before entering the South as a fighting force. While authors and Hollywood have done much to almost “canonize” these men, the actual firsthand accounts of Robert Gould Shaw and Luis Emilio do, to a great extent, confirm that they did, indeed, show an uncommon valor.
Robert Gould Shaw was a member of one of the most well known abolitionist families in Boston and America. The Shaw family knew many of the leading abolitionists in American history. Young Robert often played with the children of William Lloyd Garrison. The Shaw’s attended the church of Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe. In fact, the Shaw’s were also friends of Beecher Stowe. During his youth, Robert Gould Shaw, shared the company of many reformers and writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Shaw 1992, 2-5). This background and lineage made Shaw the leading choice of Governor John Andrew for organizing an African American volunteer unit (Shaw 1992, 23).
When offered the command of the 54th Massachusetts, Shaw was no stranger to combat. By the beginning of 1863, he was in his second combat unit and had extensive experience, including Antietam (Shaw 1992, 17). From the accounts in his letters, Shaw grew very fond of serving in the army. He particularly enjoyed the camaraderie of the 2nd Massachusetts and having established himself as a captain, Shaw found it hard to leave this unit and command the 54th Massachusetts (Shaw 1992, 16).
With the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, Governor John Andrew received the authorization to organize a unit of African American volunteers. Andrew knew that he needed an established soldier with a reputation as a supporter of abolition. Given the climate of the country at the time, Andrew knew that he would have to provide a convincing appeal. For this effort, Andrew enlisted the assistance of Francis Shaw, Robert’s father. Governor Andrew contacted Francis Shaw with the offer for Robert. Francis delivered the offer to Robert while he was deployed in Virginia (Shaw 1992, 22). It was Andrew’s hope that Robert would not refuse the commission because it had come through his parents, and he would feel a sense of obligation to them (Shaw 1992, 22). Robert while he supported the abolitionist cause, initially, did not share the passion of his mother, Sarah. When word reached Sarah of Robert’s declining of the commission, she was terribly disappointed. Robert knew he disappointed her greatly because of the emphasis she had placed on this opportunity in their correspondence. Robert felt the disappointment and it gnawed at his conscience. This is perhaps the greatest reckoning he faced—the disappointment of his mother (Shaw 1992, 25). In his letter dated February 4, 1863, Robert mentions to his fiance’, Anna Haggerty, that he has several reasons to decline the governor’s offer (Shaw 1992, 283-284). Robert’s reasons for declining the offer eroded within two days. After reconsidering, he telegraphed his family to advise them of his change of heart. Following the telegraph, Robert writes Anna to inform her of the change in plans and proudly describes his plans to prove the fighting ability of African American soldiers. He is resolute in the duty he has accepted and is working towards establishing the unit as a competent fighting force (Shaw 1992, 285-286).
Through many accounts, including Robert Gould Shaw and Captain Luis Emilio, Robert Gould Shaw’s commitment to the cause of establishing the Black man as a legitimate soldier could not be questioned. Shaw advocated for his soldiers and often faced difficulty. This in itself would prove challenging and disheartening, but another obstacle almost proved to be insurmountable. The Confederate Congress wrote a proclamation that any captured negro slaves fighting in the service of the Union would be returned to the state in which they were from. In addition, any white officers captured leading negro soldiers could be subject to execution (Emilio 1995, 16-17). It was certain that this endeavor would be difficult and dangerous.
Upon their departure from Boston in May 1863, it was hoped that by the soldiers of the 54th that they would enter combat and be able to prove themselves. Upon arriving in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Shaw found that his men would see little combat. The 54th’s first experience came in a raid on Darien, Georgia. The 54th accompanied the 2nd South Carolina on this foray. Colonel James Montgomery, the commander of the 2nd South Carolina, was in command of the expedition. Montgomery ordered that the town be burned. Shaw objected to the order and did not see the necessity in it. Despite his objections, Montgomery burned the town (Emilio 1995, 42-43). Prior to burning the town, Montgomery plundered the town, which had developed into a normal routine. The practice of plundering and burning so offended Shaw, he wrote Lieutenant General Halpine to determine if Montgomery was operating under orders (Emilio 1995, 43-44).
July saw the deployment of the 54th Massachusetts to the Charleston area. Initially, they skirmished on James Island and eventually deployed to Morris Island (Emilio 1995, 63). The 54th Massachusetts faced their greatest test on Morris Island which would result in many injuries and deaths (Burton, 164-165). When it was decided that there would be an infantry assault, the 54th was chosen. General Thomas Seymour had a rationale for choosing the 54th: they “were in any respect as efficient as any other body of men; and as one of the strongest and best officered, there seemed to be no good reason why it should not be selected for the advance” (Emilio 1995, 75).