Facial Hair Friday: Robert Gould Shaw

Today’s Facial Hair Friday candidate is Robert Gould Shaw, whose moustaches are probably best known because of his portrayal by Matthew Broderick in the 1989 film Glory. This post is from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Robert Gould Shaw was born in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1837. His parents, Francis George and Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, were well-known abolitionists and Unitarian intellectuals. Young Shaw spent his teen years traveling in Europe with his family, including to Rome, where he converted to Catholicism and attended school in Switzerland and Germany. Shaw attended Harvard from 1856 to 1859 and then worked in his uncle’s office on Long Island, New York. As a young man he had difficulty with authority and struggled with discipline at his various schools and in the 19th-century office setting.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Shaw volunteered for a 90-day enlistment with the 7th New York Militia. After three months, the regiment was dissolved, and Shaw joined the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, a newly formed regiment from his home state. He ended up being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the regiment’s Company H and from 1861 to 1862 fought in a number of bloody engagements, including the Battle of Antietam. Shaw was wounded twice during his time with the 2nd Massachusetts, and by the fall of 1862, he was promoted to captain. 

Abolitionists had been arguing for some time to allow African Americans to enlist in the Union Army, and one of the most senior and prominent White voices was Massachusetts governor John Andrew. The campaign bore fruit in 1863, when the laws for recruitment were changed to include “persons of African descent,” who would serve in segregated units. Governor Andrew was already familiar with the Shaw family and Robert, and after some persuasion, Shaw left his unit to assume command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Shaw was 25 years old. 

Between February and May of 1863 Shaw trained his men, and at the beginning of June the 54th Massachusetts arrived in the south, joining the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers for a raid on Darien, Georgia, and the Battle of Grimball’s Landing. 

The African American soldiers of the 54th had been promised $13 a month pay—equal to that of White soldiers—but upon arrival in South Carolina, they learned that the Department of the South intended to pay them only $7 a month. Shaw and other officers immediately protested the measure and encouraged the men of his regiment to refuse their pay until it was what they had been promised.

Muster roll for 54th Massachusetts, 6/30/1863. (Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives)

The most famous engagement of the 54th Massachusetts during the Civil War was at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, on July 18, 1863. During the battle, the 54th Massachusetts and other Union regiments made a frontal assault on fort. Shaw led his soldiers into battle and was shot through the chest three times while mounting the parapet of Fort Wagner. The 54th suffered about a 40-percent casualty rate. 

After the battle, the Confederates returned the bodies of the other Union officers, but Shaw’s was left to be buried in a mass grave with the Black soldiers. This was meant as an insult, but Shaw’s friends and family treated it as an honor for the officer to be buried with his soldiers. After the war, the Union Army reburied all the remains in Beaufort National Cemetery, and Shaw remains buried with his men.

In addition to his portrayal by Matthew Broderick in Glory, Shaw (and his moustache) and the 54th Massachusetts were also immortalized in a bronze relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, unveiled in 1897 in Boston. The memorial depicts Colonel Shaw and members of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, showing them as they marched down Beacon Street in Boston on May 28, 1863, before their departure to the South.

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