Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Out of the 200,000 black soldiers who served in the Union army throughout the entire war, and out of the 166 all black regiments the 54th Massachusetts was the first colored regiment to be organized in the North. Their commander was 25 year old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw the son of a wealthy Bostonian lawyer and abolitionist. He originally did not want to command but after seeing the enthusiasm with which the black troops were willing to fight he agreed to command.
For blacks who wanted to serve in the army it was illegal until 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation gave the newly freed slaves the right to fight in the United States Army. When Frederick Douglass heard about the enlistment of black troops he said ” Who would be free themselves must strike the blow . . . This is your golden opportunity.” Douglass’s son fought with the 54th.
It was not only their opportunity I believe it was their God given honor, duty, and right to strike that blow for the freedom that had so long yearned for. But sadly for many in the 54th it was their first and last opportunity. Very soon after they were organized in March 1863 they entered into a battle in which many of them did not return.
On July 11, 1863, the troops under General Quincy Gilmore and the sailors under Rear Admiral David Farragut tried to take Battery Wagner unsuccessfully. They decided to attempt once more to take the battery on July 18, 1863 this is the attack in which the 54th Massachusetts took part.
The attack on Battery Wagner was made by two attacking columns the first commanded by Colonel H. L. Putnam, the second commanded by General George C. Strong. General Strong’s column consisted of the 54th Massachusetts, the 48th New York, the 6th Connecticut, the 3rd New Hampshire, the 76th Pennsylvania and the 9th Maine.
The first column Colonel Putnam’s column attacked unsuccessfully and was beaten back. General Strong’s column was next to attack but before he began his attack Colonel Shaw went to General Gilmore ,the commander of the operation, to ask permission for the 54th regiment to spearhead the attack, for they had never been in combat and Colonel Shaw said that they would fight very bravely, so General Gilmore gave them permission to go first in the attack.
The 54th made a frontal attack on Battery Wagner along with the other five regiments in General Strong’s column which equaled about 5,000 men. The 54th reached the parapets of the battery and held them for an hour through intense hand-to-hand combat but they could hold it no longer and they fell back.
The 54th sustained 1,600 casualties, many good men died including Colonel Shaw who was shot through the heart after yelling “Come on 54th“. Almost all the officers in the 54th died. After the battle the Confederates dug rude trenches in the ground and threw the bodies in including that of Col. Shaw. When Shaw’s father asked about Robert’s body a Confederate general allegedly told him that “we buried him with his Negroes” Robert’s father said he would have wanted it that way. After the battle the New York Tribune wrote that “The battle made Fort Wagner such a name to the Colored race as Bunker Hill has been for the ninety years to the white Yankees.” That is most assuredly true.
May God honor those fallen brave and may our country never forget their sacrifice. God Bless America and all races and ethnic groups who in it live.