Today in Civil War History – the burial of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his soldiers

Yesterday, July 18th, was the 156th anniversary of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, where the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) made its spectacular but tragic charge and cemented its place in history.  The story of the 54th is kinda-sorta told in the movie Glory, which came out thirty years ago and is still one of my favorite movies of all time.

Imagine, if you will, a little boy whose family was from Massachusetts, who read a book about the Civil War and learned about a brave unit, also from Massachusetts, that suffered some 44% casualties in its first major battle.  The accompanying artwork was something that has stayed in my memory ever since.

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Tom Lovell’s painting of Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts that appeared in Robert Paul Jordan’s book on the Civil War. Note that it also shows Sergeant William Carney holding the regiment’s national colors.  SGT Carney, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, would be the first African-American soldier to earn the Medal of Honor.

So you can imagine my excitement when they actually made a movie about the 54th.  The movie is far from perfect, both from a historian’s perspective and from a moviemaker’s perspective, but still, it is just a superb film and I love it.  And the fact that they show how Colonel Shaw and his men were buried just makes the ending so powerful.  The Confederates reported that they buried some 800 dead bodies in front of Fort Wagner that day, July 19th, 1863.  They had intended to disrespect Colonel Shaw by burying him with his soldiers.  But his parents, when asked if they wanted to try to recover his body, said that they could imagine no better place for him to be buried than with the men of his regiment.

The exact location of the grave site is not known, but so far some 118 acres of the battlefield have been preserved.  Colonel Shaw’s sword that he carried into the battle was recovered in 1865 and then rediscovered a couple of years ago in the attic of a descendant of one of his siblings.

~Geoff

 

 

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