Some of you are probably fans of the TriStar Pictures film called Glory, the dramatic retelling of the recruitment of the 54th Massachusetts and its attack on Battery Wagner. It is a great film, in my humble opinion, but it suffers from a few key errors. Notably, the film does not accurately depict the manner in which Captain Robert G. Shaw accepted colonelcy of the 54th Massachusetts. Simply put, Shaw’s mother, Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, guilt-tripped him into it. The exclusion of this point from the film—and indeed from some of the books about the regiment—obscures the reluctance with which Shaw accepted command and the initial reservations he had about leading a black regiment into battle.
(Robert Gould Shaw, shown here as lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts.)
The process of raising the 54th Massachusetts began on January 26, 1863, when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent a letter granting authority to Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts to raise black volunteers for federal service. Andrew had long desired to mobilize a black regiment in Massachusetts, and even before Stanton’s letter arrived, he had several candidates in mind to command it. On January 30, Andrew drafted a letter to Rob Shaw’s father, Francis George Shaw, explaining his desire to commission his son as colonel. Andrew wrote, “I am desirous to have for its [the 54th Massachusetts] officers—particularly for its field officers—young men of military experience, of firm antislavery principles, ambitious, superior to a vulgar contempt for color, and having faith in the capacity of colored men for military service.” Then, Andrew explained what drew him to Rob Shaw. He wrote, “I am sure he would attract the support, sympathy, and active cooperation of many among his immediate family relatives. The more ardent, faithful, and true Republicans and friends of liberty would recognize in him a scion of from a tree whose fruit and leaves have always contributed to the strength and healing of our generation.”
(Governor John Albion Andrew, Massachusetts' Republican governor, insisted on raising a black regiment, even before many white people in his state were ready for it.)
The regimental history of the 54th Massachusetts explained what happened next: “Francis G. Shaw himself took the formal proffer to his son, then in Virginia. After due deliberation, Captain Shaw, on February 6, telegraphed his acceptance.”
That sentence does not tell the whole story. In fact, Shaw’s mother had to intervene to get her son to say, "yes."
Here’s what really happened. On February 3, 1863, Shaw’s father arrived at Stafford Court House, the encampment of the 2nd Massachusetts, bringing with him the January 30 letter from Governor Andrew. Shaw read the letter in front of his father and quickly declined the offer. The next day, Francis Shaw left for Boston, apparently thinking that his son’s rejection would conclude the issue. Before leaving the encampment, Francis Shaw telegraphed his wife, informing her of their son’s decision. This way, Francis Shaw supposed, Governor Andrew could offer the colonelcy to another candidate without delay. Back at Stafford Court House, Rob Shaw wrote to his fiancée, Annie Haggerty, stating why he flatly refused the job:
Father has just left here. He came down yesterday, and brought me an offer from Governor Andrew of the Colonelcy of his new black regiment. The governor considers it a most important command; and I could not help feeling from the tone of his letter, that he did me a great honour in offering it to me. My Father will tell you some of the reasons why I thought I ought not to accept it. If I had taken it, it would only have been from a sense of duty; for it would have been anything but an agreeable task. Please tell me, without reserve, what you think about it; for I am very anxious to know. I should have decided much sooner than I did, if I had known before. I am afraid Mother will think I am shirking my duty; but I had some good practical reasons for it, besides the desire to be at liberty to decide what to do when my three years have expired.
(Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, Rob Shaw's mother, shamed her son into accepting Andrew's commission as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts.)
Robert Shaw was right. His mother refused to accept her son’s refusal. The same day that Rob Shaw wrote to Annie, Sarah Shaw wrote to the governor. Her letter conveyed her terrible disappointment in her son’s decision. Here’s what she said:
4th Feb’y /63
My dear Sir,
I have just received a telegram from Mr. Shaw saying ‘Rob declines—I think rightly’—this decision has caused me the bitterest disappointment I have ever experienced. I cannot help writing to thank you from my heart for the honor you did my son in that offer you made him. In your description of what you desired in the officers for the regiment, flattering as it was, I recognized the portrait of my son—you said you should wish him to have the ‘assent, support, and sympathy of his family.’ He had it entirely & their earnest prayer for his consent. It would have been the proudest moment of my life & I could have died satisfied that I had not tried in vain. This being the truth, you will believe that I have shed bitter tears over his refusal—I do not understand it unless from a habit inherited by his father of self-distrust in his own capabilities—His father says ‘I think rightly’—When he left me Saturday it was to advise him most earnestly to accept it—I am sure it is from no base worldly nature—that is my sole consolation.
Excuse my troubling you with my griefs but I wished you to know what a crushing trial it has been on my maternal pride. I have also to thank you with sincere respect & esteem.
Sarah Shaw made haste to change her son’s mind. She went to Annie Haggerty’s house, convincing her that becoming colonel of Massachusetts’ first black regiment was the right thing for Rob to do. No doubt, it took some convincing, for if Rob accepted the position, he would have to tack on an additional three years of service. (As colonel of the 54th Massachusetts he could not muster out sooner than 1866. If he stayed with his current regiment, the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteers, he could muster out in 1864.) Once Sarah Shaw secured the support of Annie, she telegraphed her son, no doubt laying down her maternal guilt trip as best as she could. By February 6, Rob Shaw had changed his mind. Two days later, he wrote to Annie, explaining, “Mother has telegraphed me that you would not disapprove of it, and that makes me feel much more easy about having taken it.” Going on, Shaw continued, “And at any rate I feel convinced I shall never regret having taken this step, as far as I myself am concerned; for while I was undecided I felt ashamed of myself, as if I were cowardly.”
(Annie Haggerty, Shaw's fiancée, received all of his confidential letters, including the one that expressed concern about accepting a commission as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts.)
Shaw would not have felt any shame at all had his mother not felt bitter disappointment in him. At any rate, as we all know, Shaw became colonel and died leading his men. Truly, the mothers of the world hold tremendous sway.
(Captain Shaw. Soon, thanks to his mother's prodding, he left the Army of the Potomac to become colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers.)
(The Augustus Saint-Gaudens monument in Boston. Because of a mother's pride, Shaw is now remembered forever.)