Brigadier General William Taliaferro commanded some 1,800 Confederates inside the fort with units from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Union artillery from shore batteries, and cannons from Rear Admiral John Dahlgren’s fleet had pounded the Confederate stronghold for hours in preparation for the assault. Notwithstanding the intensity of the shelling, only a small number of defenders had been neutralized during the “nine-thousand shell bombardment.”
Attacking the fort, however, meant advancing up a narrow strip of land so slender only one regiment could attack at a time. The topography would prevent Union forces from effectively employing their superior numbers. The approach also lacked cover, making any attacking force an easy target for the guardians. In addition to the defender’s rifles, the fortress also had artillery positioned to repel a ground attack and added weapons support was available from nearby battlements.
More than five thousand Union Army soldiers began marching toward Battery Wagner in the early morning hours of July 18, 1863. The effort was spearheaded by a black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, and supported by the 6th Connecticut, 9th Maine, 3rd New Hampshire, 48th New York, and 76th Pennsylvania. Putnam’s and Stevenson’s Brigades were to provide additional support if needed.
The 54th approached the fort in the late afternoon and stayed out of range for a night assault. When the time came Robert Gould Shaw led his men into battle, shouting “Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!” “The 54th crossed the moat and scaled the muddy hill of the outer wall. With the cessation of the naval bombardment the largely intact Confederate garrison left their bomb-proofs and resumed their positions on the walls. In the face of heavy fire, the 54th hesitated. Shaw mounted a parapet and urged his men forward but was shot through the chest three times.” “Witness testimony of the unit’s Color Sergeant noted that his death occurred early in the battle, and he fell on the outside of the fort.”
Assault on Fort Wagner (Kurz and Allison 1890)
A reporter with the Salem Register wrote… “the men moved steadily amid a buzz and whirl of shell and solid shot, until within some three hundred yards of the fort. We could notice the ominous silence that preceded the storm; for a moment Wagner, Sumter, and Johnson were silent – then bang – zip zip – thud – crack went the most terrific discharges of musketry, grape, canister, solid shot, and every description of ammunition into our ranks, over our ranks, and through our ranks.”
Upon reaching the top, Confederate soldiers engaged the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. “In these climatic moments, the 54th suffered roughly 42% casualties. Of the 600 men engaged, 270 were killed, wounded, or captured during the engagement. Col. Shaw was killed, along with 29 of his men; 24 more later died of wounds, 15 were captured, 52 were missing in action and never accounted for, and 149 were wounded.” Fighting continued for several hours but Union troops were only briefly able to enter Fort Wagner itself. In the early hours of July 19, Federal troops withdrew, and the fierce mêlée was over.
Heroics exhibited by Shaw and his black troops were of course the subject of a 1989 movie called Glory. The movie would receive four academy awards including Best Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington. The battle for Fort Wagner, however, was not Shaw’s first fight. Robert had initially volunteered as a member of the 7th New York Militia and had rushed off to Washington to aid in the defense of the city. On May 28, 1861, however, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in Company H of the 2nd Massachusetts’s Infantry. Over the next year and a half, Shaw would fight with his fellow Massachusetts soldiers at the Battles of 1st Winchester, Cedar Mountain, and Antietam. He would serve both as a line officer in the field and as a staff officer for General George H Gordon.
Robert Gould Shaw
In late February 1862 Union troops moved into the Shenandoah Valley for the first time. On the morning of March 12, General Nathaniel Banks’ army forced Confederate soldiers under the command of General Stonewall Jackson out of Winchester. Local diarist Cornelia McDonald noted that she “tried to be calm and quiet, but could not, and so got up and went outside the door. Sure enough that music could not be mistaken, it was the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ that was played.” The Yankees had taken the town and barely a shot had been fired.
Coincidentally, Winchester native Cornelia McDonald, lived next door to the James Mason residence known locally as Selma. Early one March morning she observed “a U.S flag streaming over Mr. Mason’s house. Found out it was occupied as headquarters by a Massachusetts regiment.” The unit identified was the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry and Robert Gould Shaw would have bivouacked nearby with his men.
Period Sketch of the Mason Family Home at Selma
The Mason residence would have been an interesting choice of headquarters for the regiment. The home owner, James Murray Mason, had served in the United States Senate during the period leading up to the Civil War and had pushed his states’ rights agenda of separation. His authorship of the Second Fugitive Slave Law, however, would be the regulation for which he would be most remembered by northern soldiers and for which he would suffer a great deal of retribution. With the coming of the war James’ was delegated as the South’s diplomat to Europe and would be famously involved in what would be known as the Trent Affair. Within a year Mason’s home, Selma, would be completely destroyed by occupying Union Soldiers.
It is certain Robert Gould Shaw would have known Mason’s story. As Shaw’s early writings make almost no mention of slavery or abolition, it is certain his exposure to the institution would have been negligible. Still, while traveling in Europe in 1851 he had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin which had sculpted his opinion on the subject. By the time he joined the war effort in 1861, however, he had not had any significant contact with the institution.
While in Winchester, though, the custom of slavery would have been on display all around him. On Sunday March 23, while Shaw’s regiment and division was in process of being shifted east to join with General McDowell, their progress was delayed by a damaged bridge. It was, perhaps, on this expedition through Snicker’s Gap that Robert Gould Shaw may have had his most noteworthy interaction with enslaved people.
On the same day the Battle of Kernstown was being fought Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment were at Snickersville (now Bluemont) waiting for a bridge to be repaired. Shaw and about a dozen others chose to listen to an outdoor oration which he claimed, “was a real sermon.” While they were “lying in the sun on the side of a hill… 4 or 5 negros who had come up in their Sunday clothes to see the soldiers passed along. Among them was a white man with two curly headed boys – all these as handsome people as you would find.” One of Shaw’s’ friends pointed out: “That’s a white slave so we called to him & asked what his trade was.” “Nothing sir, said he “but working in the field under another man.” “There he stood in front of us & talked for two hours, as eloquently as any educated man I know.”
Following the First Battle of Kernstown the 2nd Massachusetts was recalled to Winchester. Shaw wrote home noting the 2nd Massachusetts surgeons, Dr. Francis Leland and Lincoln Stone, both close friends, “went immediately to work and the medical director says, did more good than all the Ohio and Pennsylvania surgeons together.” Shaw recorded in a letter to his mother: “I went to the Court-house where Dr Leland was, and out of about 40, there were very few who were not seriously wounded. In the entry there were about 20 dead men laid out, with the capes of their overcoats folded over their faces. We looked at many faces to see if there might not by chance be some college-acquaintance among them. It was strange to see the dead & wounded Ohio men & Virginians lying there side by side.” This was Shaw’s first exposure to the tragic aftermath of combat.
Within days Banks’ Army marched in pursuit of Stonewall Jackson’s legion. They trooped through Strasburg, New Market, and on as far as Harrisonburg. Here they remained until May 5, when Banks became convinced Jackson was heading south to oppose McClellan’s drive on Richmond. Banks immediately began a retrograde movement to Strasburg, arriving there on May 13. He would remain there for the next nine days.
Robert Morris Copeland
While based in Strasburg Major Robert Morris Copeland, General Banks aide-de-camp, was tasked with traveling to Washington to lobby the war department to send reinforcements to the Shenandoah Valley. Copeland had a proposal of his own in mind, though, and petitioned Captain James Savage, and Lieutenant Robert Shaw to accompany him. They were so moved by his enthusiasm to raise a black regiment they decided to journey with him to make their case.
Copeland used his position with General Banks to get leave for Savage and Shaw. The threesome trekked to Washington DC to lay out their plan with Secretary of War Edward Stanton. According to Shaw “the Secretary of war wouldn’t allow it to be done.” Their scheme was quickly rejected and, equally significant, they were only able to influence the war department to send four companies (A, D, H, and K) from the 10th Maine Infantry to Winchester as reinforcements.
“Copeland’s views on abolition and his advocacy of raising black regiments played a role in irritating his superiors and the matter raises questions as to the possible biased treatment of abolitionist officers by their superiors and peers who disagreed with their views. Copeland would eventually be dismissed from the army for his advocacy.” Shaw, once inspired though, would persist in the quest.
Shaw arrived back in Winchester on May 24 and rejoined his regiment as it retreated from Strasburg in the face of the advance of Stonewall Jackson’s sixteen-thousand-man army. Two miles south of Newtown, along the Valley Pike, the 27th Indiana had deployed across the Valley Pike near the home of the Crisman family. The 2nd Massachusetts, 28th New York, and two sections of artillery were sent to support them long enough for the wagon train to complete its journey to Winchester. The mission was completed successfully.
Shortly after the fight at the Crisman Farm the 2nd Massachusetts retreated alone to a hill just north of Bartonsville and Opequon Creek. Here the men in the regiment recalled that “no sooner had they setup a defensive position than Confederate cavalry attacked from across the Opequon. From across the run someone yelled…Charge.” “Company I had just gone down to the creek when the charge was announced. Its commander put his men into square and quickly repulsed the attack.”
Adapted Hotchkiss map showing the dispositions of the 2nd Massachusetts on May 22.
Following the skirmish at Opequon Creek the regiment retreated another mile north to the hamlet of Kernstown. It was here that Lieutenant Shaw caught up with his regiment. Major Dwight had chosen the Mahaney house as a temporary hospital for their wounded. Unfortunately, he had not had time to position his troops for defense. Dwight soon realized his mistake and quickly deployed his four companies. Outgunned, the regiment was forced to withdraw leaving their wounded and a physician, Dr. Leland, behind.
The 2nd Masachusetts continued its retreat to Winchester. Lieutenant Shaw noted: “At nearly every stone wall between Bartonsville and Milltown a company or two dropped back to deliver a volley at their pursuers. At 2 A.M. the 2nd Massachusetts stumbled into Winchester, the last Federal to enter the town that night.” Shaw reported he “was on outpost Saturday night” and “we were firing at intervals all night long.”
“The night was cold and the ground wet” and most Union troops had not eaten in more than twenty-four hours. At first light on May 25, though, picket fire opened the battle. The first Confederate attack occurred against the Union left flank at Camp Hill. Shortly thereafter Jackson turned his attention to Banks’ right flank atop Bowers Hill. The 2nd Massachusetts had been placed in line on the far-right flank of the Union line. To their immediate left was the 3rd Wisconsin, the 29th Pennsylvania and then, finally, the 27th Indiana. Two sections of the 1st New York Battery M had been placed to their rear.
Shaw remembered that when he had returned to the regiment he had done so without a weapon of any kind. It was sometime after the fight began on Sunday that he was able to “get a little sword from a drummer boy. It was little better than a toy-sword, but you get so accustomed to having one in your hand when on duty, that until I got it I felt as if I had no right to give an order.”
The morning mist had been lighter on the Union right flank and the fight had opened early with skirmishing and counter battery fire from both sides. Colonel Andrews of the 2nd Massachusetts pushed his skirmishers out seeking “new targets with deadly accuracy.” Two of the regiment’s companies provided artillery support on Bower’s Hill. According to General Winder their concerted fire caused “much execution” in the ranks of Confederate artillerymen.
Around 7:30 a.m. a flank attack led by General Richard Taylor’s Louisiana Brigade dislodged Federal defenders. As this attack developed the 24th Pennsylvania and 27th Indiana was deployed to the 2nd Massachusetts right flank. Despite this Banks’ line crumbled under the pressure of Jackson’s assault. Union soldiers fled north through the streets of Winchester.
Shaw recalled the battle and retreat through Winchester: “The fight began immediately and continued for about two hours when we were ordered to retreat. The rebels had a much larger force and actually got into the town before we did. We lost a great many men in the streets of Winchester. The inhabitants did their share from the windows – women as well as men.” “I hardly remember anything about it, for just at that moment we were busy with the men, as Colonel Andrews halted the regiment in the street and formed the line, so that every officer had his hands full keeping the men steady.” “I hope that town will be destroyed when we go back there. We had time to burn part of it while the fight was going on.”
Map of the Battle of 1st Winchester, National Park Service Map
It was during this period that Shaw was hit. “The watch was in the pocket of my vest, though I almost always carry it in my fob. I felt a violent blow and a burning sensation in my side, and at the same moment a man by my side cried out, “O, my arm!” “So when I felt the blow on my side & found my watch had stopped the ball, the first thing I thought of was how you all would have felt if I had been left on that infernal pavement and it seemed as if I could see you all standing on the piazza just before I came away.” “I had just time to wonder why I wasn’t lying on the ground, when the order came, ‘Right face, double-quick, march,’ and off we went…” “Never the less we managed to make 34 miles after the fight, though, to be sure, a good many stragglers were taken.”
Shaw remembered that there were fifty men in his company when they went into battle at Winchester. “There were one killed, eight wounded, and two taken prisoners and carried off by the rebels when they retreated. Nine killed and wounded out of fifty is a large proportion. Our wounded were left in Winchester and paroled and also several men were left as nurses in the hospitals.”
One of the major casualties for the 2nd Massachusetts was the regiment’s second in command, Major Wilder Dwight. Dwight had stopped while he was retreating through Winchester to help a wounded soldier to a house so he could be tended to. As he exited the house he was captured by “butternut soldiery.” Escorted to the Taylor House Major Dwight noted that the courthouse, once utilized as a hospital, was now being employed as a prison. Confederates were now making use of it’s fenced in courtyard as a penitentiary for captured soldiers.
Robert Gould Shaw’s fame is well known especially with regard to the exploits of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. His involvement in Jackson’s Valley Campaign is an unknown for most though. Even fewer are aware of the impact the adventure would have on him for the remainder of his life. In addition to 1st Winchester, Shaw would fight at Cedar Mountain, and at Antietam. Here would receive a wound to his neck at Antietam while fighting in the Cornfield.
Following the battle at Fort Wagner commanding Confederate General Johnson Hagood returned the bodies of the Union officers who had died, but left Colonel Shaw’s corpse buried in a mass grave with his black soldiers. Hagood told a captured Union surgeon that “had he been in command of white troops … he would have returned Shaw’s body, as was customary for officers, instead of burying it with the fallen black soldiers.”
Although Hagood’s gesture was intended as an insult, Shaw’s acquaintances believed it was an honor for him to be buried with his men. As substantial “efforts had been made to recover Shaw’s body” Robert’s father publicly proclaimed that “he was proud to know that his son had been buried with his troops, befitting his role as a soldier and a crusader for emancipation.”
In a letter to the regimental surgeon, Lincoln Stone, Shaw’s father wrote: “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, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has!”
Morris Island is smaller than 1,000 acres and has been subject to extensive erosion from the sea. “Much of the site of Fort Wagner has been eroded away, including the place where the Union soldiers were buried. By the time that had happened, the soldiers’ remains were no longer there because soon after the end of the Civil War, the Army disinterred and reburied all the remains, including presumably those of Shaw, at the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina.” Here, in the quiet and shade of the Magnolia trees his gravestone may lie marked as “unknown.”
Afterthought: If you recall from earlier in this essay, I noted Lieutenant Shaw had been struck by a bullet and was astonished that “he had not been knocked off his feet and surprised further that he had not just been killed.” “The ball undoubtedly would have entered my stomach,” he wrote, “and as it was, bruised my left hip a good deal.” One might wonder what would have happened if this pocket watch had not stopped that “enemy ball.” The positioning of this timepiece, unbeknownst to Shaw or any other man on the Battlefield at 1st Winchester, would go on to shape history and launch a nationwide recognition of an entire race of people held in bondage. Lieutenant Shaw would send the watch home to his family as a memento of the battle and, unknown to his family, a token to the history of enslaved people. The location of the watch is currently unknown.
Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Memorial in Boston
Cozzens, Peter. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC. 2008.
Dwight, Wilder. Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight, Lieut-Col Second Massachusetts Mass Inf. Vols. Ticnor and Fields. Boston. 1866.
McDonald, Cornelia Peake. A Woman’s Civil War: A Diary with Reminiscences of the War, from March 1862. Gramercy Books. New York. 1992.
Phipps, Sheila R. Genteel Rebel: The Life of Mary Greenhow Lee. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge, La. 2004.
Robert Goud Shaw, edited by Russell Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1992). Pages 203-210