In his early years, Robert Gould Shaw lived within the privileges of a wealthy family in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1837. As he entered his early adult years, life took him to New York, where he went to work after dropping out of Harvard. But then the U.S. Civil War began and Robert joined the Union Army.
In the army, Robert took part in numerous battles, including one in 1862, where Robert’s pocket watch deflected a bullet that could have seriously wounded him. Then in 1863, the Governor of Massachusetts selected Robert to command the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first all-black Union Army regiment.
Under his leadership, the 54th Massachusetts would play an important role in the Union Army’s assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. In this battle, Robert’s leadership and bravery inspired many. As the regiment came under heavy fire, Robert moved to the front, yelling, “Forward 54th!” He led his men until he was shot and killed during the battle. The Confederate Army buried Robert with his men in a mass grave, as was the practice for black soldiers at the time.
Robert’s legacy has endured beyond his death, however. He is remembered as a hero who believed in the equality of all people, regardless of race or background, with his story immortalized in literature and film, including the 1989 film “Glory,” which tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts and its role in the Civil War. Today, monuments and memorials to Robert and his regiment can be found throughout the United States, serving as a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who fought for freedom and equality.
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- Read a snapshot biography of Frederick Douglass, who advocated for black soldiers serving in the Union Army.
Robert Gould Shaw Story Sources
Robt. G. Shaw / Whipple, 96 Washington Street, Boston. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2010647752/>. / Lt. Robert G. Shaw, standing, facing front. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2010647753/>. / “COL Robert Gould Shaw.” On Point, vol. 10, no. 1, 2004, pp. 15–15. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44610474. Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.