Elizabeth Gaskell

"Robert Gould Shaw" (Macmillan's Magazine, 1863)

I should like some of the readers of Macmillan to remember the name of the late Colonel Robert Gould Shaw as the name of one who gave up his life for what he believed to be right - deliberately risked, and cheerfully laid down, a prosperous, happy, beloved, and loving life.

Forgive me, dear American friends, if I seem to trench a little too much on what is personal! Before I end my narrative I think you will understand why I do it.

My first acquaintance with the Shaw family was in Paris, in the year 1855. Mrs. Shaw and her young daughters were spending the winter there; Mr. Shaw had gone to America to superintend the building of a large family house on Staten Island, that pleasant suburb of New York. There was only one son, Robert Gould Shaw, and he was absent from Paris at this time - studying in Germany, I think. The family had been for nearly five years in Europe, travelling in Italy and Egypt, and stopping where they liked, after the manner of wealthy Americans, and educating their children not after the usual manner of wealthy people. I remember the large pleasant suite of rooms, looking into the Tuileries gardens, occupied by Mrs. Shaw and her daughters; the pretty, thoughtful, original girls, clustering round their sweet, loving mother; the birds and pet animals, which she taught them to care for and attend to. I recollect scraps of the conversation of those days: how Mrs. Shaw spoke of her husband as the true and faithful descendant of one of the Pilgrim Fathers who had left everything for conscience' sake; how anxious she was that, while her daughters benefited in every way by the real advantages which Paris offered in the way of intellectual education they should not be tainted by the worldliness and the love of dress so often fostered by a residence there. She spoke of the pity it was that the American girls in general were so encouraged, by the wealth of their parents, to spend great sums of money on themselves, so that this habit of expenditure always produced a self-indulgent character, and really often became an obstacle to marriages of true love; and then she went on to say how much she and her husband feared the adoption of riches as a comparative standard of worth. But, again, she was fully alive to the real advantages that might be derived from wealth. One of her daughters drew well, and loved animals; she had lessons from Rosa Bonheur. The house at Staten Island was to be a home not merely for their children, but for their children's friends; each child was to have a sitting-room and bedroom, and an extra bedroom opening into the sitting-room, for a friend. These plans came lightly to the surface of conversation; and every now and then I had glimpses, unconsciously to my friend, of what she and her husband felt to be the deeper responsibilities of their position.

Well, this happy, prosperous family returned to America the next year. From time to time I gave English friends going to New York introductions to the Shaws; and one and all spoke of the kind hospitality which was shown to them - the bright home, full of treasures of European art, collected during their five years' travel; the upright, honourable father, the sweet mother, the eldest daughter, now married and living at home with her husband - (I thought how well the education had answered that had led to a 'marriage of true minds,' to which no want of riches on the distinguished husband's part had proved 'impediment') - the pretty elegant daughters playing at croquet on the lawn, before the game was so common in England - the noble, handsome, only son, with both his parents' characters blended in his, and a sunny life of prosperity before him.

That was the last picture I had of the home on Staten Island before the war broke out.

I knew that my friends were deeply impressed with the sin of slavery; they were thoughtful Abolitionists, and had taken part in all political questions bearing upon the subject both before and after their residence in Europe. I had letters on the subject of the war, as likely to affect slavery within a month or two after the affair at Fort Sumter. They were not the fanatical letters of new converts to an opinion; still less were they the letters of people taking up a great moral question as a party cry. They were the letters of men and women deeply impressed with the sense of a great national sin, in which they themselves were, to a certain degree, implicated; and, without too much casting stones at others, they spoke of slavery as a crime which must be done away with, and for the doing-away of which they were not merely willing, but desirous, to make their own personal sacrifices. The sacrifice has been made, and is accepted of God.

Presently I heard that Robert Gould Shaw, the only son, had entered the 7th New York Lancers, the crack regiment into which all the young men of the 'upper ten thousand' entered; a dashing corps, splendidly horsed and arrayed. I remember well how I used to look for any mention of this 7th Lancers! By-and-by, perhaps before the war had deepened to grim, terrible earnest, Mrs. Shaw sent me word how, unable almost to bear the long separation from her only boy, she and his sisters had gone to camp (I forget where) to see him. And then he was at home on leave; and then he was engaged to a sweet, pretty young lady; and then - he had left the gay regiment of the 7th Lancers, and had gone to live with, and train and teach, the poor forlorn coloured people, 'niggers,' who were going to fight for the freedom of their brothers in the South. The repugnance of the Northerners to personal contact with black or coloured people has been repeatedly spoken of by all travellers in America. Probably Colonel Shaw had less of this feeling than a Northerner would have had who had been entirely brought up in America; but still it must have required that deep root of willingness to do God's will out of which springs the truest moral courage, to have enabled him to march out of New York at the head of the Massachusetts 54th, all black or coloured men, amidst the jeers and scoffings of the 'roughs,' and the contemptuous pity of many who should have known better. Yet this did Colonel Shaw, one day this last spring, with a brave trustful heart, leaving home, leaving mother, leaving new-made wife, to go forth and live amongst his poor despised men, the first regiment of niggers called into the field, and to share their hardships, and to teach them the deepest and most precious knowledge that he had himself. Two months afterwards he was with them before Fort Wagner, 'sitting on the ground and talking to his men,' says an eyewitness, 'very familiarly and kindly. He told them how the eyes of thousands would look on the night's work on which they were about to enter; and he said, "Now, boys, I want you to be men!" He would walk along the line, and speak words of cheer to his men! We could see that he was a man who had counted the cost of the undertaking before him, for his words were spoken so ominously,' (remember the Confederates had openly threatened to make an especial aim of every white officer leading coloured troops), 'his lips were compressed, and now and then there was visible a slight twitching of the corners of the mouth, like one bent on accomplishing or dying. One poor fellow, struck no doubt by the Colonel's determined bearing, exclaimed as he was passing him, "Colonel, I will stay with you till I die;" and he kept his word; he has never been seen since.'

The 54th coloured Massachusetts regiment held the right of the storming column that attacked Fort Wagner on the 18th of July last. It went into action 650 strong, and came out with a loss of a third of the men, and a still larger proportion of officers, but eight out of twenty-three coming out uninjured. The regiment was marched up in column by wings, the first being under the command of Colonel Shaw. When about 1,000 yards from the fort, the enemy opened upon them with shot, shell, and canister. They pressed through this storm, and cheered and shouted as they advanced. When within a hundred yards from the fort, the musketry from it opened with such terrible effect that the first battalion hesitated - only for an instant. Colonel Shaw sprang forward, and, waving his sword, cried, 'Forward, my brave boys,' and, with another cheer and shout, they rushed through the ditch, gained the parapet on the right, and were soon hand to hand with the enemy. Colonel Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and, while shouting to them to press forward, he was shot dead, and fell into the fort. His body was found with twenty of his men lying dead around him, two lying on his own body. In the morning they were all buried together in the same pit.

I must not forget to name one of Colonel Shaw's men - one of 'his niggers' (as the Confederates called them; when the Federals asked for his body the day after the fight, 'Colonel Shaw!' they said, 'we buried him below his niggers!') - One of his niggers was a Sergeant William Carney, who caught the colours from a wounded colour-bearer, and was the first man to plant the stars and stripes on Fort Wagner. As he saw the men falling back, himself severely wounded in the breast, he brought the colours off, creeping on his knees, pressing his wound with one hand, and with the other holding up the banner, the sign of his freedom. The moment he was seen crawling into hospital with the flag still in his possession, his wounded companions, both black and white, rose from the straw on which they were lying and cheered him until, exhausted, they could cheer no longer. In response to this reception the brave wounded standard-bearer said, 'Boys, I but did my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground.'

And now Robert Gould Shaw is dead; the rich prosperous young man, who might have lived at his ease in the beautiful home on Staten Island, is dead. He, who might have fought gallantly in splendid uniform on a noble charger among his fellows in riches and station, is dead - fighting among the despised coloured people, amongst whom the last months of his life were passed - buried beneath his niggers with contempt and insult.

It makes my heart burn when I read the false statements sometimes put out by English papers, to the effect that the higher classes of Northerners shirk their part of sacrifice and suffering, and that, in fact, the Federal regiments are filled with mercenaries, German or Irish. I, one English individual, know, of my own personal knowledge, of three only sons, of rich parents, living in happy homes, full of gladness and hope, who have left all - I will say it - to follow Christ; and have laid down their lives, for no party object, for no mere political feeling; but to see if their lives might avail, if ever so little, to set the captive free. And the mother of one of these dead sons is giving, her friends fear far too liberally, to procure comforts, and even luxuries for the Confederate prisoners in Fort la Fayette.

And now, dear mourning friend, let me quote some of your words: -

'Yes, my darling, precious, only son has joined the host of young martyrs who have given their lives to the cause of right in the last two years. He and I had thought and talked of what might happen to him, and I thought I ready for the blow when it should come; but when can a mother be ready to give up her child? It has been a terrible struggle, and no relief comes to me but from prayer. I do not mean that I would have had it otherwise, for it was a fitting end for his noble and most beautiful life. Ah! dear friend, when I think of the agony that has torn the hearts of mothers and wives in this country North and South, I feel sure that God is performing a mighty work in the land, and, purified from our curse of slavery, our descendents will reap the reward of our suffering.'

I will now copy out some extracts from an American newspaper, to show that my strong feeling about Colonel Shaw is participated in by others not of kin to him.


When John Brown was led out of the Charlestown jail on his way to execution, he paused a moment, it will be remembered, in the passage-way, and, taking a little coloured child in his arms, he kissed and blessed it. The dying blessing of the martyr will descend from generation to generation, and a whole race will cherish the memory of that simple caress, so degrading as it seemed to the slave-holders around him.

Only those who knew Colonel Shaw can understand how fitting it seems, when the purpose of outrage is put aside and forgotten, that he should have been laid in a common grave with his black soldiers. The relations between coloured troops and their officers, if these are good for anything and fit for their places, must needs be, from the circumstances of the case, very close and peculiar. They were especially so with Colonel Shaw and his regiment. His was one of those natures which attract first through the affections. Most gentle-tempered, sympathetic, full of kindness, unselfish, unobtrusive, and gifted with great personal beauty and a noble bearing, he was sure to win the love, in a very marked degree, of men of a race peculiarly susceptible to influence from such traits. First they loved him with a devotion which could hardly exist anywhere else than in the peculiar relation which he held to them as commander of the first regiment of free coloured men permitted to fling out a military banner in this country - a banner that, so raised, meant to them so much. But then came closer ties. They found that this young man, with education and habits that would naturally lead him to choose a life of ease, with wealth at his command, with peculiarly happy social relations - one most tender one just formed - accepted the position offered to him, in consideration of his soldierly as well as moral fitness, because he recognised a solemn duty to the black man, because he was ready to throw all that he had, all that he was, all that the world could give him, for the negro race! Beneath that gentle and courtly bearing which so won upon the coloured people of Boston when the 54th was in camp; beneath that kindly but unswerving discipline of the commanding officer; beneath that stern, but always cool and cheerful courage of the leader in the fight, was a clear and deep conviction of a duty to the blacks. He hoped to lead them, as one of the roads to social equality, to fight their way to true freedom, and herein he saw his path of duty. Of the battle (two days before that in which he fell, and in which his regiment, by their bravery, won the right to lead the attack on Fort Wagner), he said, "I wanted my men to fight by the side of whites, and they have done it;" thinking of others, not of himself; thinking of that great struggle for equality in which the race had now a chance to gain a step forward, and to which he was ready to devote his life. Could it have been for him to choose his last resting-place, he would no doubt have said, "Bury me with my men, if I earn that distinction."

The following is the address of the Military Governor of South Carolina to the people of colour in the Department of the South

'Beaufort, S.C. July 27, 1863.

To the coloured soldiers and freedmen in this Department.

It is fitting that you should pay a last tribute of respect to the memory of the late Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Colonel of the 54th regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. He commanded the first regiment of coloured soldiers from a Free State ever mustered into the United States' service.

He fell at the head of his regiment, while leading a storming party against a rebel stronghold. You should cherish in your inmost hearts the memory of one who did not hesitate to sacrifice all the attractions of a high social position, wealth, and home, and his own noble life for the sake of humanity - another martyr to your cause that death has added - still another hope for your race. The truths and principles for which he fought and died still live, and will be vindicated. On the spot where he fell, by the ditch into which his mangled and bleeding body was thrown, on the shores of South Carolina, I trust that you will honour yourselves, and his gallant memory, by appropriating the first proceeds of your labour as free-men towards erecting an enduring monument to the hero, soldier, martyr - Robert Gould Shaw.

Brigadier-General and Military Governor.'


'We have buried him with his niggers.'
Reply to the request for Colonel Shaw's body.

Oh! fair-haired Northern hero!
With thy guard of dusky hue,
Up from the field of battle!
Rise to the last Review!

Sweep downward, welcoming angels,
In legions dazzling bright
Bear up these souls together
Before Christ's throne of light!

The Master, who remembers
The cross, the thorns, the spear,
Smiles on these risen freedmen
As their ransomed souls appear.

And thou, young generous spirit,
What shall thy greeting be?
'Thou hast aided the down-trodden;
Thou hast done it Unto Me.'


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