Online: Object of the Month
"This I cannot but regard as perhaps the most important corps to be organized during the whole war..."
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
In a letter to Francis G. Shaw, Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts explains his reasons for offering to Shaw's son, Captain Robert Gould Shaw, the command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first regular army regiment of African American soldiers raised in the North during the Civil War.
Raising an African American Regiment
After the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on 1 January 1863, Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts quickly secured authorization from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to recruit "persons of African descent, organized into special corps" to fight for the Union cause. While former slaves were enlisted locally in Union-occupied areas of Louisiana and South Carolina, and in Kansas, there remained strong resistance to recruiting African Americans. The War Department refused to commission black officers, or to provide equal pay for black soldiers.
Anxious to raise a black regiment before the federal government could reconsider the matter, Governor Andrew wrote to Francis G. Shaw, asking him to forward an enclosed letter to his son, in which Andrew offered the younger Shaw command of the new unit that would become the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; view the online presentation of the letter from Governor Andrew to Robert Gould Shaw.
Robert Gould Shaw
In selecting Captain Shaw for command of the "special corps" of African Americans, Governor Andrew had chosen, as he phrased it, a gentleman "of the highest tone and honor," a tested combat veteran who also had strong family connections to abolitionist leaders in Massachusetts. Named for his grandfather, one of Boston's wealthiest merchants, Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston on 10 October 1837, and grew up in a life of privilege. In 1841, his father, Francis George Shaw, retired from business to devote himself to literary study, philanthropy, and antislavery, a cause shared by Robert's mother, Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw. The Shaw family moved from Boston to West Roxbury, Massachusetts, where they lived near the site--and under the influence--of the utopian community at Brook Farm. Later they lived in New York and then moved to Europe where Robert studied in Switzerland and Germany before he returned to Massachusetts to attend Harvard College. He left college without graduating in 1859 to enter business in New York City where he met Annie Kneeland Haggerty, whom he would marry in May 1863, only two months before his death.
When the Civil War began, Shaw served briefly in the socially elite 7th New York Infantry Regiment ("the Darling Seventh"), before receiving a commission in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, an equally elite Bay State regiment. Shaw saw eighteen months of hard service in Virginia and Maryland with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, including the Battles of Cedar Mountain and Antietam, and had been promoted to the rank of captain before his name was put forward for command of the new African American regiment.
In writing to Francis Shaw, rather than directly to Robert Gould Shaw, Governor Andrew hoped to encourage the father to influence the son's decision. In fact, the elder Shaw hand carried the message to his son's camp in Virginia where he delivered it on 3 February 1863. This was a wise move because Robert Gould Shaw initially was very reluctant to leave his surviving comrades in the 2nd Massachusetts, and less enthusiastic than his parents about the "special corps" that Andrew proposed to raise. Governor Andrew hoped to avoid public embarrassment and damage to the effort to recruit black soldiers if Shaw refused the command: "I don't want the office to go begging," he wrote to Shaw's father, "and if this offer is refused I would prefer its being kept reasonably private." At first the younger Shaw did refuse the appointment, but two days later he relented, at least in part to please his parents, an action that would lead to his own death, but immortal fame for his regiment for their gallant attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on 18 July 1863.
The 54th Regiment Reborn
On 21 November 2008, in a ceremony at the Massachusetts State House, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was reactivated as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment to serve as the ceremonial unit of the Massachusetts National Guard. The new 54th renders military honors at funerals and state functions. The unit marched in Washington in the presidential inaugural parade on 20 January 2009--an event filled with historic symbolism--joined there, as it had been at its reactivation ceremony, by Company A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (The 54th Massachusetts Glory Brigade, Inc.), African American reenactors based in Mattapan, Massachusetts. Both the members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and the reenactors of Company A honor the memory of the original 54th, of whom Governor Andrew wrote, "I know not when, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory."
The records of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the Massachusetts Historical Society
The Historical Society holds many manuscripts and photographs that document the service of black soldiers and sailors in the Civil War. Highlights include the personal papers of Governor John A. Andrew, who ordered the recruitment of the 54th Regiment. Click here to view the finding aid for the John A. Andrew Papers, as well as photographs and other materials collected for a history of the regiment by the commander of Company E, 54th Infantry, Captain. Luis F. Emilio. Click here to see the record for this collection in ABIGAIL.
For Further Reading
Burchard, Peter. One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965.
Duncan, Russell. Where Death and Glory Meet. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Emilio, Luis F. A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865. 2nd ed., rev. and corrected. Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894.
Hope & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts in association with the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2001.
Shaw, Robert Gould. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: the Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw. Ed. by Russell Duncan. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Shaw, Robert Gould. "The Letters of Robert Gould Shaw at the Massachusetts Historical Society." Ed. by Brenda M. Lawson. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (vol. 102; Boston, 1991), 127-147.
Yacovone, Donald. We Fight for Freedom: Massachusetts, African Americans, and the Civil War. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1993.