If you ever get a chance visit Moravian Cemetary in New Dorp, Staten Island, NY to see the memorial marker to Robert Gould Shaw, or see the house of George Curtis (who my high school was named after) on Robert Gould Shaw Lane, Livingston, Staten Island, NY I recommend it. The Shaw memorial is nothing grandiose...simply his name.... and the inscription "buried with his men"
The reluctant abolitionist
Sunday, February 25, 2007
By BOB RAIMONTO
STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE STAFF WRITER
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Robert Gould Shaw did not want the job. He did not want to command this all-black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts.
Here was his father, the bearded and benevolent Francis George Shaw, visiting his Army of the Potomac unit, the 2nd Massachusetts, at Stafford Courthouse, Va., on Feb. 3, 1863. The elder Shaw carried a letter from Gov. John Andrew, offering the young man leadership of the unit with a promotion to colonel.
Robert was in no mood to consider the proposal. He had developed fast friendships with the fellow officers of his infantry regiment, in which he was a captain, and those bonds had been strengthened in the cauldron that was Antietam.
The men who emerged from what has been called the bloodiest day of the war, who survived that horrific clash with the Army of Northern Virginia on Sept. 17, 1862, in Maryland, had slept that night among the mangled dead of both sides.
But Abraham Lincoln had decided that Antietam, no better than a dreadful draw between the Yanks and Rebs, was actually the Union victory he needed to give force to his Emancipation Proclamation.
SLAVES ARE FREED
So, on Jan. 1, 1863, the president issued the document that freed the slaves in all areas of the Confederacy still in rebellion and provided for the recruitment of blacks into the federal military. The 54th Massachusetts would be organized following Lincoln's declaration. The abolitionist Gov. Andrew would be the real power behind this volunteer unit.
The governor found numerous supporters for his project among Northern anti-slavery activists. One of these was Francis George Shaw. He was a philanthropist from Boston who gave of the family fortune that came from importing.
He also was a founder of the Republican Party and of the Unitarian Church on Staten Island, his adopted home county of woods, farms, beaches and about 14,000 souls. (In addition, in 1864, he would become a founder of the Staten Island Savings Bank.)
However, perhaps even more than Francis George Shaw (1809-1882) himself, his wife Sarah Sturgis Shaw (1815-1902) promoted both the 54th and the idea of her son taking charge of this pioneer regiment.
Mrs. Shaw could be a pushy individual, evincing little tolerance for the self-doubts that would sometimes afflict both her spouse and son. The Shaws had five children. Besides Robert (1837-1863), they were Anna (1836-1923), Susanna (1839-1926), Josephine (1843-1905) and Ellen (1846-1936).
For this family, the Shaws put up an $80,000 house in Livingston, complete with eight servants, sweeping staircase and large grounds.
"The formal entrance was on Bard Avenue, but the property reached to Davis Avenue," according to the late borough historian, Richard Dickenson of New Brighton.
Next door was the home that the Shaws built for Anna, a superb horsewoman who would become a longtime president of the Unitarian Church, and her husband, George Curtis (1824-1892), the abolitionist, author, editor, lecturer and Republican Party stalwart for whom Curtis High School in St. George would be named.
Mr. and Mrs. Shaw had come to the Island from Massachusetts in the late 1840s so that she could be near the county's eccentric, effective eye doctor, Samuel MacKenzie Elliott.
Both here and in New England, the Shaws could count the following in their immediate circle and wider expanse of friends: Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; poet John Greenleaf Whittier; women's rights advocate Lucretia Mott; essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson; author Nathaniel Hawthorne; historian Francis Parkman; novelist Henry James and his brother, William, a philosopher and psychologist; and author Harriet Beecher Stowe.
TURNED DOWN OFFER
Robert Gould Shaw, no impassioned abolitionist in the mold of his parents, read Gov. Andrew's letter offering him the 54th Massachusetts position and turned it down. He did not want to leave his comrades in the 2nd. He did not think he was old enough, at age 25, to take charge of a fighting unit of 1,000.
And, in what was unspoken, he apparently was not enthralled with the notion of commanding blacks in combat or in anything else. This Northerner, this Harvard dropout, ostensibly had his own racial prejudices to overcome.
On Feb. 4, 1863, the day after his father's visit, Shaw wrote a letter to Annie Haggerty (1835-1907), his fiancee who shortly before his death would become his wife: "If I had taken it, it would only have been from a sense of duty, for it would have been anything but an agreeable task."
Nonetheless, the younger Shaw very quickly, and inexplicably, changed his mind and accepted Gov. Andrew's offer, telegraphing the news to his father. Was he somehow spurred by the fear of facing his indignant mother when home on his next leave? Or were there nobler motivations at work?
Whatever the reason, Shaw left Virginia and reached New York by Feb. 11. Three days later he was in Boston. He would now set about training his regiment for war.
The South had launched the conflict. On Dec. 20, 1860, within 46 days of Lincoln's electoral victory, South Carolina passed an ordinance of secession. That touched off a rebellion that erupted in open hostilities with the Rebels' firing on Fort Sumter, a federal facility, in Charleston (S.C.) Harbor, on April 12, 1861.
Lincoln responded by summoning some 75,000 volunteers to put down the insurrection. But he was careful to cast the North's military reaction as a mission to restore the Union, not a crusade to end slavery, an institution of some 4 million blacks in 15 states.
"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the union and is not either to save or destroy slavery," Lincoln said.
Shaw himself wasn't too sure the men of the 54th Massachusetts could save the Union or anything else. He didn't care much for his unit's recruits and expressed his feelings in frankly racist terms.
"They are not of the best class of nigs," he said in a letter to his father from Camp Meigs in Readville, southwest of Boston, where his regiment was encamped.
Historians have tried to explain Shaw's attitude toward blacks. One, Russell Duncan, probably said it best: "Shaw was a paternalist, not at all sure that the detractors were incorrect about blacks' abilities."
But Shaw would impose a strict discipline on the men; the troops would respond positively to the strenuous martial training, and thus they would gain their leader's respect -- respect that, in time, would be reflected in his numerous letters home to the Island.
"The skeptics need only come out here now to be converted," he wrote his father on March 30, 1863.
The men of the 54th Massachusetts were, for the most part, free blacks from the United States and Canada. Be- SHAW, PAGE A 24 fore volunteering for the regiment, many worked as seamen, farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters and shoemakers.
For his part, Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist and thorn in Lincoln's flesh over the bondage of his people in the South, recruited about 100 men for Shaw -- and two of them turned out to be his own sons, Lewis, 22, and Charles, 19.
(The late Borough historian Dickenson has noted that it did not appear that any blacks from Staten Island had joined the 54th. He added that blacks from the borough did serve in the Civil War, but research has been "indeterminate" as to where.)
Shaw and the 54th finally received their orders to ship south for combat. On May 28, the regiment and its commander paraded through Boston en route to the docks, a ship ... and a journey into history.
ARRIVE AT HILTON HEAD
The 54th disembarked at Hilton Head, S.C., headquarters of the Union Army's Department of the South, on June 3. Eight days later, the 54th went on its first operation, or at least some of its soldiers did. Col. James Montgomery, commander of the 2nd South Carolina, an infantry outfit composed mainly of contrabands, ordered a company of the 54th to join his men in a raid on Darien, Ga., an undefended and largely uninhabited town that sent cotton, rice and timber to world markets.
Montgomery ordered the town pillaged and torched. Shaw protested the destruction and his men's participation in it, to no avail. He didn't mind so much the looting, but burning down the municipality was unacceptable to him. He was concerned that the role of the 54th's single company in the razing of the town would besmirch the reputation of his entire regiment.
It did. Both South and North, anti-black elements raised their voices against the savagery of the Darien assault by the black soldiers and condemned the 54th and its colonel.
The younger Shaw wanted vindication for his men. He was unsure when it would come. But the Lincoln administration and Gen. Quincy Gillmore, head of the Department of the South, would soon give the 54th that opportunity.
In the spring of 1863, the government had decided to take Charleston. To capture that city, Fort Sumter would have to be reduced. And to accomplish that goal, the Union forces would have to overcome the fortifications that the Confederates had erected on the islands clustered outside the harbor's entrance. One of these was Morris Island, site of Fort Wagner.
Gillmore wanted to seize the fort, then use its artillery pieces to silence Fort Sumter and destroy Charleston if that city refused to surrender. Rather than subject Fort Wagner to a long siege, he decided upon a quicker solution, a frontal assault. The attack, on July 11, failed. The 54th was not part of this action.
But Gillmore ordered another frontal attack on Wagner on July 18. The fortification was located on the northern end of low, flea-infested Morris. In facing the bastion, attackers would first encounter a waist-deep moat, fed by a creek to the left and by the Atlantic Ocean on the SHAW, PAGE A 24 right.
Atop this ditch was an elongated, 25-foot-high barrier of sand and logs. Behind the earthwork, and also shielded by a bombproof or sunken shelter, was a Confederate garrison of artillerymen and infantrymen numbering between 1,000 and 1,700, according to varying estimates.
Gillmore directed that a day-long bombardment of Fort Wagner would precede an infantry attack at dusk on July 18.
In the actual charge, recounted in Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, would be the 54th, the 48th New York, the 6th Connecticut, the 3rd New Hampshire and the 76th Pennsylvania.
In the lead, in the center of the charge -- at Shaw's request -- would be the 54th. And in front of the 54th would be Shaw. He had few doubts about the outcome, at least for himself.
He already had experienced a premonition of death. He told his second-in-command, Lt. Col. Edward Hallowell: "If I could live a few weeks longer ... and be home a little, I think I might die happy. But it cannot be. I do not believe I will live through our next fight."
The bombardment of Fort Wagner was a fierce one. Joining the land batteries in the blasting of the fortification, according to Leslie's Illustrated History, was Admiral John A. Dahlgren's naval forces of five monitors, two ships and six mortar boats. A total of 9,000 shells were lobbed on to the powerful Rebel position.
"Fort Wagner is being very heavily bombed," Shaw wrote home on his last day on Earth. "We are not very far from it."
The bombardment ended about 7 o'clock. The young commander handed his personal papers to Edward Pierce, an abolitionist newspaperman and friend of his parents; ordered the 54th, down to about 600 men due to death, injury and disease, to form up in two lines, and gave his troops a brief speech. Normally reserved, he emotionally exhorted them to prove themselves. Then, they charged.
Tomorrow: Robert Gould Shaw had survived the enormous battle at Antietam and lesser engagements in the Civil War. His luck and his life would end while commanding the 54th Massachusetts against Fort Wagner. Nonetheless, he and his men would live on, in both legend and in stone. Their sacrifice would not only justify the opinions of abolitionists, but speed the recruitment of more blacks and thus help end the conflict.
Bob Raimonto is a copy editor for the Advance. He can be reached at email@example.com.