Harper's Weekly 08/15/1863


We publish on page 525 a portrait of the late
Colonel Shaw, who was killed at the head of
his regiment, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Vol-
unteers (colored), in the recent attack on Fort

Robert G. Shaw was a son of Francis G. Shaw,
of Staten Island, and was twenty-seven years of
age at the time of his death. At the outbreak of
the war he enlisted as a private in the Seventh
Regiment. On their return home he obtained a
commission in the Massachusetts Second, and took
part in all the battles in which that fighting regi-
ment was engaged. Twice—at Cedar Mountain,
and again at Antietam—he narrowly escaped a
severe wound. On the formation of the Fifty-
fourth Massachusetts Colored Regiment the Col-
onelcy was tendered to Captain Shaw by Govern-
or Andrew; and the universal report is that no
finer regiment ever left the Bay State than the
thousand men whom he led to the war. Colonel
Shaw took part in the first attack on Morris Isl-
and, which secured us command of most of the
Island. His subsequent performance is so well
described in the following letter from Mr. Edward
L. Pearce to Governor Andrew that we give it

When the troops left St. Helena they were separated,
the Fifty-fourth going to James Island. While it was
there, General S. received a letter from Colonel Shaw, in
which the desire was expressed for the transfer of the Fif-
ty-fourth to General S.'s brigade. So when the troops were
brought away from James Island General S. took this
regiment into his command. It left James Island on
Thursday, July 16, at 9 a.m., and marched to Cole's Isl-
and, which they reached at 4 o'clock on Friday morning,
marching all night, most of the way in single file, over
swampy and muddy ground. There they remained dur-
ing the day, with hard tack and coffee for their fare, and
this only what was left in their haversacks, not a regular

From 11 o'clock of Friday evening until 4 o'clock of
Saturday they were being put on the transport, the Gen-
eral Hunter
, in a boat, which took about fifty at a time.
There they breakfasted on the same fare, and had no other
food before entering into the assault on Fort Wagner in
the evening.

The General Hunter left Cole's Island for Folly Island
at 6 a.m., and the troops landed at Pawnee Landing about
9 ½a.m., and thence marched to the point opposite Morris
Island, reaching there about 2 o'clock in the afternoon.
They were transported in a steamer across the inlet, and
at 4 p.m. began their march for Fort Wagner. They
reached Brigadier-General Strong's quarters, about mid-
way on the island, about 6 or 6 ½ o'clock, where they halted
for five minutes. I saw them there, and they looked worn
and weary.

General Strong expressed a great desire to give them
food and stimulants, but it was too late, as they were to
lead the charge. They had been without tents during the
pelting rains of Thursday and Friday nights. General
Strong had been impressed with the high character of the
regiment and its officers, and he wished to assign them
the post where the most severe work was to be done and
the highest honor was to be won. I had been his guest
for some days, and knew how he regarded them. The
march across Folly and Morris islands was over a very
sandy road, and was very wearisome. The regiment went
through the centre of the island, and not along the beach,
where the marching was easier.

When they had come within 600 yards of Fort Wagner
they formed in line of battle, the Colonel heading the first
and the Major the second battalion. This was within
musket-shot of the enemy. There was little firing from
the enemy, a solid shot falling between the battalions, and
another falling to the right, but no musketry. At this
point the regiment, together with the next supporting regi-
ments, the Sixth Connecticut, Ninth Maine, and others re-
mained half an hour. The regiment was addressed by
General Strong and Colonel Shaw. Then at half past sev-
en or three-quarters past seven o'clock the order for the
charge was given. The regiment advanced at quick time,
changed to double-quick when at some distance on.

The intervening distance between the place where the
line was formed and the fort was run over in a few min-
utes. When within one or two hundred yards of the fort
a terrific fire of grape and musketry was poured upon them
along the entire line, and with deadly results. It tore the
ranks to pieces and disconcerted some. They rallied
again, went through the ditch, in which was some three
feet of water, and then up the parapet. They raised the
flag on the parapet, where it remained a few minutes.
Here they melted away before the enemy's fire, their bod-
ies falling down the slope and into the ditch. Others will
give a more detailed and accurate account of what oc-
curred during the rest of the conflict.

Colonel Shaw reached the parapet, leading his men, and
was probably killed. Adjutant Jones saw him fall. Pri-
vate Thomas Burgess, of Company I, told me that he was
close to Colonel Shaw; that he waved his sword and cried
out, “Onward, boys!” and, as he did so, fell. Burgess
fell, wounded, at the same time. In a minute or two, as
he rose to crawl away, he tried to pull Colonel Shaw along,
taking hold of his feet, which were near his own head, but
there appeared to be no life in him. There is a report,
however, that Colonel Shaw is wounded and a prisoner,
and that it was so stated to the officers who bore a flag of
truce from us; but I can not find it well authenticated.
It is most likely that this noble youth has given his life to
his country and to mankind. Brigadier-General Strong
(himself a kindred spirit) said of him to-day in a message
to his parents: “I had but little opportunity to be with
him, but I already loved him. No man ever went more
gallantly into battle. None knew him but to love him.”

I parted with Colonel Shaw between six and seven on
Saturday evening, as he rode forward to his regiment, and
he gave me the private letters and papers he had with him
to be delivered to his father.

I asked General Strong if he had any testimony in rela-
tion to the regiment to be communicated to you. These
are his precise words, and I give them to you as I noted
them at the time:

“The Fifty-fourth did well and nobly, only the fall of
Colonel Shaw prevented them from entering the fort.
They moved up as gallantly as any troops could, and with
their enthusiasm they deserved a better fate.”

One who knew him well wrote of him, most

It was that rare quality that commands at once the love
and obedience of men that peculiarly fitted Colonel Shaw
for a commander. Of a most genial and kindly nature,
of manners as gentle as a woman's, of a native refinement
that brooked nothing coarse, of a clear moral insight that
no evil association could tarnish, of a strength of purpose
aiming always at noble ends, of a courage quiet but cheer-
ful and unwavering, he was one of those characters which
attracts, and at the same time moulds all others brought
under their influence. Even this was observed of him
when only a second lieutenant in the Second Massachu-
setts; how much more has it been shown in the Fifty-
fourth! This country has lost in him one of its best sol-
diers, and one of its most promising men.

Colonel Shaw was only about twenty-seven years of age,
and was married a few weeks before he joined the army
of the South.

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