Thinking about the sword of Robert Gould Shaw


Well, it looks like it is time for another trip to Boston.

The absolutely stunning history news today is that the Massachusetts Historical Society has acquired the sword of Robert Gould Shaw, the first Colonel of the Civil War’s 54th Massachusetts regiment. The institution claims it is the one he was carrying when he was shot down leading his men in their famous attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.

Wow. Just, wow.

“Put it this way,” Anne Bentley, curator at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said, “as a curator, if you’re lucky, once in a lifetime something this significant crosses your desk. This is my once-in-a-lifetime [moment].”

That isn’t hyperbole, I am confident she means it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history, the 54th is now perhaps one of the most famous Union regiments of the Civil War thanks to the movie Glory (1989). (Here’s a nice 4 minute video lesson on them from the Civil War Trust and historian Kevin Levin).  I’ve written about how that movie inspired my own career, and I’ve also authored a trilogy about the regiment for the New York Times “Disunion” series.  This article is about their recruitment, this one is on their attack on Fort Wagner (and is also published in this book), and this one details their participation in the Battle of Olustee.

Of course I am the least important of the many historians that have written about the 54th, which was the first African American regiment from a northern state and was recruited at a time when whites assumed that blacks could not be good soldiers. Douglas R. Egerton, for just the most recent example, has an excellent monograph about them and their sister regiment, the 55th Massachusetts.

Still, I can’t let them go and have actually been doing research lately on the immediate press coverage they received in the wake of their attack on Fort Wagner. This is for a book chapter I am currently working on, but it will probably find its way into a bigger project on down the road. The standard line on the 54th Massachusetts is that the men’s determination to prove the humanity of their race (and their rightful claim to citizenship), coupled with Shaw’s disciplined leadership, turned the unit into a particularly fine regiment.  They performed gloriously in the Wagner attack, dispelling the racial assumptions of the times, and thus leading to the recruitment and use of the other black regiments that Lincoln proclaimed to have collectively turned the tide of war.

But how much is that image a product of hindsight and/or selective research? I won’t give away the questions that are driving my research at the moment, but let’s just say I have been reading a lot of contemporary mass media reports of, and responses to, the attack on Fort Wagner and the death of Shaw. Our current bombshell headlines have been competing for my attention over the last two months with those of the summer and fall of 1863.

Which is why this news about Shaw’s sword is even more breathtaking to me at the moment. The story from the Boston Globe leaves so many unanswered questions! Shaw’s body was buried on the sandy battlefield of Morris Island, SC., in an area now underwater (although you can still visit Morris Island by boat from Charleston). The rebels that tossed him into a mass grave with his soldiers saw it as an insult, justified by his leading of black troops. Yet his family resisted all subsequent calls for efforts to find and reclaim his remains, insisting there was no more appropriate and holy burial site than where he lay with his men.

No doubt before he was tossed into the grave, some Reb took his sword as a trophy (and there is some documentation of that happening).  But where did it go from there? What documentation do we have for where it has been and how it wound up in a family attic? All we get from the article is this tantalizing info:

“Bentley said the precise whereabouts of the sword, stolen from Shaw’s body shortly after he was killed . . .  have long been a mystery to historians and Civil War buffs. But in March, three great-grandchildren of Susanna Shaw Minturn, Shaw’s sister, discovered the sword in an attic as they cleaned out the family home.” Further, “through meticulous research, headed by Bentley and staff from the society, they were able to piece together a detailed timeline of what happened to the sword and confirm its authenticity, tracing its roots all the way back to England, where it was forged.”

I cannot wait to discover the details of that story and to see the documentation. Let’s hope it comes out in an article or essay made publicly available online.

UPDATE: A local Boston TV news station aired a story that claims the sword was returned to the family in 1865. Still, I am curious as to what happened to it from the moment it was taken, to the time it was returned (who and how) and then why it was lost after that. Again, many questions to be answered.

All kinds of thoughts swirl in my head when I think about one day seeing that sword on display. Some are romanticized images in my mind’s eye of Shaw leading his men forward into the hellish maelstrom of death that they bravely faced in the name of saving the Union, destroying slavery, and establishing respect for their race.

But the image that is haunting me the most tonight is far away from the battlefield.

As they paraded through the streets of Boston just before embarking for the South, the regiment did so before a large throng of dignitaries, supporters, and curious onlookers. By all reports, the men were incredibly impressive that day, with Shaw striking a particularly fine and memorable figure as he pridefully rode at the head of his men on horseback.

This moment, of course, is the subject of the famous August St. Gaudens memorial which stands on the Boston Commons (you may recall that recently, a vandal broke the sword off the memorial):


Knowing exactly where his new wife and his family were watching, the young colonel paused before them just long enough to look to the sky . . .  and to raise up and kiss his sword.

It was apparently an awe-inspiring and emotional sight, but one of his sisters recalled that at the very moment he kissed his sword, she had a premonition of his death.

Indeed, Shaw himself had the same ominous forebodings, and his family and new bride never saw him again as he marched off to give his life for the Union, and to the important mission of the 54th Massachusetts.

Man, I can’t wait to see that sword.


One thought on “Thinking about the sword of Robert Gould Shaw

  1. Pingback: Update on the Shaw sword . . . and more questions | History Headlines

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