The Civil War
Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863) was the white colonel in charge of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first all-black units to fight for the Union during the Civil War. He was killed while storming a Confederate battery at Fort Wagner in Charleston on 18 July 1863. Shaw is remembered for his leadership of African-American troops and the over two hundred letters he wrote to his family from the front. The exploits of the colonel and his unit were dramatized in the 1989 movie, Glory. The Shaw neighborhood in Washington, D.C., a center of black cultural expression during the first half of the twentieth century, is named for him.
Over 200,000 black soldiers fought for the Union, but, invariably, white officers commanded them. Shaw was initially less than thrilled with his assignment, but he warmed to his troops, who showed bravery and determination when confronting both Confederate bullets and the prevailing prejudice of the day. After Shaw's death at Fort Wagner, he was buried with his troops in a common grave, which the Confederates perceived as an insult. His death and burial, however, were championed by his family who understood the heartfelt respect Shaw had for his men and for the Union cause.