Robert Shaw’s All Black Regiment Changed The Course of The Civil War

Sean Kernan

Source: pic via Blackamericaweb

Prestige, money, and education afforded Robert Gould Shaw many escapes from war. And yet he took none of them. The sheer force of his moral calling brought him forward when others stood still. His decision to train, lead, and fight alongside the first black regiment, would forever change the trajectory of the Civil War.¹

Robert Shaw’s family was fantastically well-off, his father a successful merchant and exporter of translated books. For years, Shaw traveled throughout Europe, indulging his every whim with no fiscal worries. He later attended Harvard and began a traditional business career.

It was around this time that the Civil War flared up. His enlistment in the Union army made perfect political sense. His family were known abolitionists and actively involved in regional affairs. Additionally, talented men were needed. The Union was not faring well in the early parts of the war.

Shaw went on to serve in the 7th Infantry Regiment, successfully defending Washington DC in April of 1861. He continued participating in battles and securing promotions. But as he proved himself a standout soldier and leader, another initiative was afoot.

Changing ranks by necessity

A plan was put into motion to enlist black soldiers into the Union Army. Logistically, it was essential. Functionally, it made perfect sense. There was an obvious alignment of goals. Many free black men still had relatives in chains. Yet, while Union leadership and its soldiers should be credited for their intentions during the war. There were still problematic race perceptions. Some questioned the intelligence and competency of black soldiers, wondering if this initiative could even be scaled across the entire armed forces. There were also concerns about how the arrival of black soldiers would affect their white counterparts.

In 1862, they started a pilot program via the all-black 54th Regiment. Finding leaders was difficult in the beginning due to persisting stigmas. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, an abolitionist, who knew Shaw’s family, and had heard good things about Robert, approached him at a party to propose the idea.

It should be noted that Robert Shaw was initially standoffish. While deeply committed to ending slavery, he had his own reservations about how the role would affect his reputation. He asked for time to think. He met with his mother, who was not only anti-slavery but believed in the full integration of races. In his talks with her, she implored him to take the job, which he ultimately did.

Training began with great publicity

Many around Shaw thought he was crazy for taking the regiment, telling him that black soldiers wouldn’t do well, that they weren’t smart enough. There was national media attention on Shaw’s regiment and, sadly, quite a bit of skepticism. The Confederacy, meanwhile, announced that all captured black soldiers would be sold into slavery. And all white officers caught leading them would be executed.

Nonetheless, Shaw assembled his 1000 men and began his stern but compassionate training. His troops were recruited from surrounding states with some difficulty. Black men were skeptical of joining because of the Union’s initial refusal to recruit them.

Quite quickly, Shaw’s skepticism changed to great pride, as is revealed in letters to his father:

“Everything goes on prosperously. The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than most of the Irish that I have had under my command. There is not the least doubt that we will leave the State with as good a regiment as any that has marched.”² to the 54th Regiment via Wikimedia Commons

The 54th enters combat

They fought in several battles, performing well in each, taking minimal losses. But their efforts weren’t without challenges. At the center of the conflict was a need for black soldiers to be taken seriously. They’d been treated as laborers rather than fellow soldiers. When Shaw discovered his men wouldn’t be paid the same as white soldiers, he took a voluntary pay cut in protest and lobbied on their behalf with the highest command. Eventually, he secured equal pay and further boosted their loyalty. By this time, his soldiers would walk through fire for him, and, eventually, they did.

The history-solidifying moment of the 54th would come in 1863 at the Battle of Fort Wagner. He and his men volunteered to lead the initial charge against the heavily entrenched Confederate fort. They knew this would be a deadly assault, with the odds against them. If you were a soldier in the Union army, this was not an outfit you wanted in on.

They stormed Fort Wagner, taking heavy cannon and gunfire as they advanced on the slopes leading up to the fort’s walls. A Confederate soldier later confessed that Rebels were, “Maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops.”³ The men of the 54th knew they weren’t just fighting for their own freedom, but to represent the image of black soldiers. The optics of their efforts left a lasting impression on white Union soldiers, who could have well-been part of that front line. They were struck by the 54th’s skill and steadfast advance against the hail of deadly projectiles.

The Union was not successful in taking the fort that day. The 54th took heavy losses, losing 40% of their troops, with Robert Gould Shaw being slain via five shots to the chest. But they proved that a black regiment was a good as any.

The Confederate army buried him in a mass grave with his black soldiers, refusing to turn his body over. He was not given a proper burial as a sign of disrespect for having led soldiers of color.

Years later, the Union army would start an initiative to exhume his body and give him a proper burial that was befitting of his rank, but his father interceded:

“We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers. We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company— what a body-guard he has.”

Newspaper stories of Shaw and the 54th’s sacrifice would spread across northern states, dispelling myths and drawing great respect. It helped normalize the mixing of white and black troops. Most importantly, it inspired hundreds of thousands of black soldiers to join the Union army, helping the US purge its terrible sin.


[1] Buescher, John (2011) Robert Gould Shaw

2] Luis, Emilio (1995) A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863–1865

[3] Dunphy, John (2011) Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials.

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