The White Man
who Led Blacks

Veteran: Robert Gould Shaw
Artist / Writer: Camille McMennamin

The White Man who Led Black Men Against the South. 

Robert Gould Shaw was born in 1837, “a blue-eyed child of fortune.”* The silver spoon that fed him was passed down from his paternal grandfather. His family was Bostonian, prominent, aristocratic. And fiercely abolitionist. 

After about two “gap years” studying and traveling abroad, Shaw attended Harvard, but dropped out before finishing, unsure of what he wanted in life. 

He soon found out. 

When war began in 1861, he joined the Union forces, taking part in several battles, including Antietam. In the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, he attained the rank of Captain. 

Never as passionate as his parents about freeing the slaves, Shaw was recruited by the Governor, and fervently urged by his parents to raise and command one of the first black regiments in the Union Army. Shaw was hesitant. He didn’t believe dark-skinned soldiers could fight as well as white soldiers. 

The Massachusetts 54th proved him wrong. 

They trained. They were tough, loyal, and honorable, earning his deepest respect and admiration. When he discovered they weren’t to be paid the same as white troops, he led an 18 month boycott of all wages until they were guaranteed equal pay. 

Riding high on his steed, Colonel Shaw proudly led his all black regiment through Boston to depart for service in South Carolina. He said goodbye to his new bride of 26 days. 

At first only assigned manual labor, the 54th proved their mettle against Confederates at James Island. Two days later, they were among the units assigned to lead the perilous charge on Charleston’s Battery Wagner. 

Shaw bravely lead his men forward and was killed in the assault. He was 25 years old. 

Confederate General Hagood, to show his contempt for a white man who would lead black troops, refused to return Shaw’s body and buried him in a trench with his men. 

Instead of taking offense, Shaw’s father declared: 

“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, nor wish for him better company – what a body-guard he has!” 

*William James, in a speech unveiling the Shaw Monument by Saint-Gaudens in 1897.