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Monday, May 19, 2014

Robert Gould Shaw Leads the 54th Regiment

The recent post on White Officers of the Montford Point Marines reminded me of another White leader of an African American unit. I previously described how White Officers and Special Enlisted Staff were selected to train Black recruits at the newly established Montford Point training facility in 1942 (New River, NC). The drill instructors and office staff were selected because of their prior interaction with Asians and Latinos in military campaigns. White Officers were also interviewed to determine if they objected to Black Marines in the Corps.

White Officers were needed to train Black recruits. Through testing and observation, capable Black recruits could then be promoted to become a non-commissioned officer. Letter of Information 421, a classified memo, stipulated that a Black person could not hold a rank above a White Officer. Despite progress in admitting Blacks to the Corps, racial guidelines had to be followed. 

The Film Glory

 I immediately thought of the critically acclaimed 1989 movie Glory. Why the connection? Training and guidance came from a White Officer in charge of a segregated Black unit. Again, many Americans thought Blacks were unfit for soldiering. Glory starred Matthew Broderick as Union Officer Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was the dedicated White leader of the Massachusetts 54th Colored Regiment during the Civil War. The 54th Regiment was the most famous African American Unit. Glory also had an Academy Award winning performance by Denzil Washington and included Morgan Freeman. Washington and Freeman portrayed free colored soldiers in the 54th.

Glory depicted events of the 54th Colored Regiment through the viewpoint of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The story was based on letters that Robert Shaw kept. One issue the 54th faced was that Negro soldiers received unequal pay for fighting. White soldiers were paid several dollars more than Black soldiers. Members of the 54th refused pay until the situation was rectified. Col. Shaw joined the protest in a show of solidarity. Furthermore, the Colored Soldiers initially mistrusted their young leader. But as the story progressed Shaw and the soldiers developed a strong bond. 

Stakes were considerably high for Colonel Shaw and his 54th Colored Regiment. If captured they would not be prisoners of war. An announcement from the Confederate Congress stated that every captured Black soldier would be sold into slavery and every White officer in command of Black troops would be executed. (

The story of the 54th regiment lead by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Civil War and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

The Civil War (1860-1865) was  a major bloody conflict that saw the South's secession from the Union. Wealthy Southerners needed free labor to cultivate cotton, rice, tobacco and other agriculture that maintained their vast riches. About 3/4 of Southern Whites did not own slaves. However, the remaining percentage of southerners, who were far from rich, felt compelled to fight on the side of the Confederacy, fervently waving the rebel banner. It did not matter that some Confederates might have been dirt poor. They aspired to be rich and identified with their more privileged White counterparts.

During the first part of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln insisted the war was a fight to restore the Union. Yet, many saw a higher purpose in the struggle, and that purpose was to not only save the Union, but abolish slavery as well. Many believed that if the abolition of slavery was a reason for the war, black troops should be allowed to fight. Many others disagreed, including General Sherman, who was reported as saying, "...can a Negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? Can they improvise bridges, sorties, flank movements, etc., like the white man? I say no." ( 

Enter Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was from a prominent New York and Massachusetts family and was an abolitionist, a person that was the against the the enslavement of Blacks.  Shaw was "socially conscious and deeply devoted to intellectual and spiritual pursuits," and "counted among their friends and associates such thinkers, writers, and reformers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe," according to

Robert Shaw was personally selected by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew to become the leader of the 54th Colored Regiment. Shaw's selection was after the bloody Battle of Antiem. Incidentally, Anti-Slavery crusader Frederick Douglas had two sons that fought in the 54th. Colonel Shaw was only 25 years of age. (

Fort Wagner
Source: Library of Congress
Battle of Fort Wagoner

54th Infantry Regiment 


Early in February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first call for black soldiers. Massachusetts did not have many African-American residents, but by the time 54th Infantry regiment headed off to training camp two weeks later more than 1,000 men had volunteered. Many came from other states, such as New YorkIndiana and Ohio; some even came from Canada. One-quarter of the volunteers came from slave states and the Caribbean. Fathers and sons (some as young as 16) enlisted together. The most famous enlistees were Charles and Lewis Douglass, two sons of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Now back to the film Glory:

The film dramatizes the fateful assault on Fort Wagner , a Confederate bastion on Morris Island, S.C. Now this actually happened. On July 18, 1863, Colonel Shaw led the charge of 600 men under withering fire against the well-protected battery. Shaw was slain early in the assault, and 256 soldiers were wounded, captured, or killed. Says historian John David Smith, “The Confederates considered the black soldiers to be insurrectionists and their white officers inciters of slave revolts, so they refused to respect the Yankees as soldiers. Accordingly they dumped their dead bodies in a pit.” (

William Harvey Carney

The experiences of that fateful night at Fort Wagner cemented the fact that Blacks had the mettle necessary for being excellent soldiers. During the assault, a brave member of the 54th managed to save the regiment's flag from being taken. Sergeant William Harvey's  body was riddled with bullets. He was awarded a Medal of Honor 37 years later for his valor. William Harvey Carney became the first African American to receive a Medal of Honor.

William Harvey Carney, First Black Medal Of Honor Recipient.
Carney received his medal 37 years after his heroic action at Fort Wagoner during the Civil War.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw courageously led colored troops during the Civil War. His unwavering commitment to the Union cause was instrumental in garnering support for Colored Troops in the Civil War. Additionally, William Harvey Carney became the first African American to receive a Medal of Honor.The  Army's 54th Regiment, like the Montford Point Marines, demonstrated that Colored Troops were not a farce but a powerful force in United States military history. The United States Colored Troops were later christened Buffalo Soldiers by the Native Americans. They are also Medal of Honor Recipients.

Next week Americans will celebrate a federal holiday called Memorial Day.  How many of readers knew that Memorial Day was started by African Americans after the Civil War?
Robert Gould Shaw


"More than 180,000 African American soldiers (and roughly 19,000 sailors) fought for the Union in a segregated branch of the military, the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Another 200,000 black civilians—men and women—dug trenches, hauled away the dead, cooked meals, and performed other such gritty jobs." (

Antietam National Park slavery
Sergeant William Harvey Carney

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