Early life and career
Shaw was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a prominent abolitionist family. His parents (who lived off the inheritance left by Shaw's merchant grandfather) were Francis George and Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, and he had four sisters: Anna, Josephine, Susanna and Ellen. He was a religious liberal and a Unitarian who 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, but he withdrew before graduating. He then went to the esteemed Kenyon College in Gambier, OH and also went to work at his uncle's business. At Harvard, he was a member of the Porcellian Club.
Read a letter from Robert Gould Shaw to his wife, Annie, about his account of the the Raid at Darien, Georgia during the Civil War.
After Abraham Lincoln's election and the secession of several Southern states, Shaw joined the 7th New York Infantry Regiment and marched with it to the defense of Washington, D.C., in April 1861. The unit served only thirty days. In May 1861, Shaw joined the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry as second lieutenant. He served there for over two years, seeing action at the Battle of Antietam, and was promoted to captain.
He was then recruited by Governor John A. Andrew to raise and command one of the first regiments of black troops of the Union. Although he was initially unenthusiastic about his assignment, the dedication of his men deeply impressed him and he grew to respect them as fine soldiers. Upon learning that black soldiers would receive less pay than white ones, he inspired his unit to boycott this inequality until it was rectified.
Shaw was promoted to major on March 31, 1863, and colonel on April 17, so he was in charge of the 54th when they were ordered to loot and then burn the city of Darien, Georgia, on June 11, much to Shaw's dismay. The destruction of the undefended city of little strategic importance had been ordered by Colonel James Montgomery.
On May 2, 1863, Shaw married Anna Kneeland Haggerty (d. 1907) in New York City. They had decided to marry before the unit left Boston despite their parents' misgivings. They spent their brief honeymoon at the Haggerty farm in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Robert Shaw is well-known for the over 200 letters he wrote to his family and friends during the Civil War. They are currently located in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Some may also be found in the book Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, which includes most of his letters and a brief biography of Shaw.
Death at Fort Wagner
The 54th was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, to take part in the operations against the Confederates stationed there. On July 18, 1863, along with two brigades of white troops, the 54th assaulted Confederate Battery Wagner. As the unit hesitated in the face of fierce Confederate fire, Shaw led his men into battle by shouting, "Forward, Fifty-Fourth!" (scripted as "Come on, Fifty-Fourth!" in the film Glory).He mounted a parapet and urged his men forward, but was shot through the heart and killed during the assault. When the Confederate soldiers buried the dead, they removed his shoes and buried him with his black soldiers, intending it as an insult. However, Shaw's abolitionist father proclaimed that he was proud that his son was buried alongside the African American men with whom he had served and that Robert would have approved.
In 1864, sculptor Edmonia Lewis created a bust of Shaw.
The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White, was built in his memory on Beacon and Park Streets in Boston in 1897.
There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man. There on horseback among them, in his very habit as he lived, sits the blue-eyed child of fortune, upon whose happy youth every divinity had smiled. — Oration by William James at the exercises in the Boston Music Hall, May 31, 1897, upon the unveiling of the Shaw Monument.
A monument to Shaw's memory was erected by his family in the family plot at Moravian cemetery in Staten Island, New York. An annual commemoration is held there on his birthday.
Shaw was also memorialized in the transept of Harvard University's Memorial Hall, which is dedicated to the students who perished in the war to preserve the Union. Although he did not graduate, he is credited with the class of 1860.
The story of Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts was dramatized in the 1989 movie, Glory, with Shaw portrayed by Matthew Broderick.
Shaw and the 54th are memorialized in the Charles Ives piece Three Places in New England.
The African-American poet Benjamin Griffith Brawley wrote a memorial poem entitled "My Hero" in praise of Robert Gould Shaw.
The neighborhood of Shaw, Washington, DC, which grew out of freed slave encampments, bears his name. It is widely considered the pre-Harlem center of African-American intellectual and cultural life.