Early life and educationShaw was born in Boston to abolitionists Francis George and Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, well-known Unitarian philanthropists and intellectuals. The Shaws had the benefit of a large inheritance left by Shaw's merchant grandfather and namesake Robert Gould Shaw (1775-1853), and Shaw himself would have been a member by primogeniture of the Society of the Cincinnati had he survived his father. Shaw had four sisters -Anna, Josephine, Susannah and Ellen);- scholarship and civic-mindedness inculcated into all the children.
When Shaw was five the family moved to a large estate in West Roxbury, adjacent to Brook Farm. In his teens he traveled and studied for some years in Europe. Later the family moved to Staten Island, New York, settling among a community of literati and abolitionists, while Shaw attended the lower division of St. John's College (comparable to a modern high school).
From 1856 until 1859 he attended Harvard University, joining the Porcellian Club, but withdrew before graduating.
American Civil WarEarly in the American Civil War, Shaw joined the 7th New York Militia and in April 1861 marched with it to the defense of Washington, D.C. In May 1861 he joined the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry as a second lieutenant, with which he fought in the First battle of Winchester, the Battles of Cedar Mountain, and Antietam.
Shaw was approached by his father while in camp in late 1862 to take command of a new All-Black Regiment. At first he declined the offer, but after careful thought, he accepted the position. Shaw's letters clearly state that he was dubious about a free black unit succeeding, but the dedication of his men deeply impressed him, and he grew to respect them as fine soldiers. On learning that black soldiers would receive less pay than white ones, he inspired his unit to conduct a boycott until this inequality was rectified. The enlisted men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (and the sister 55th) refused pay until Congress granted them full back pay at the white pay rate in August 1863.
Shaw was promoted to major on March 31, 1863, and to colonel on April 17.
On June 11, 1863, Shaw wrote about war crimes committed against the citizens of Darien, Georgia when the civilian population of women and children were fired upon, forced from their homes, their possessions looted, and the town burned. Shaw noted in a letter, "On the way up, Montgomery threw several shells among the plantation buildings, in what seemed to me a very brutal way; for he didnt know how many women and children there might be." Shaw was initially ordered by Colonel James Montgomery to perform the burning but he refused. Shaw noted in a letter, "The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were, that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old. In theory it may seem all right to some, but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord's vengeance, I myself don't like it." He goes on to say, "We are outlawed, and therefore not bound by the rules of regular warfare; but that makes it nonetheless revolting to wreak our vengeance on the innocent and defenceless."
Ironically, the original Scottish founders of Darien had signed the first Petition against the Introduction of Slavery in the colony of Georgia.
Death at the Battle of Fort WagnerThe 54th Regiment was sent to Charleston, South Carolina to take part in the operations against the Confederates stationed there. On July 18, 1863, along with two brigades of white troops, the 54th assaulted Confederate Battery Wagner. As the unit hesitated in the face of fierce Confederate fire, Shaw led his men into battle by shouting, "Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!" He mounted a parapet and urged his men forward, but was shot through the heart and died almost instantly. According to the Colors Sergeant of the 54th, he was shot and killed while trying to lead the unit forward and fell on the outside of the fort.
The victorious Confederates buried him in a mass grave with many of his men, an act they intended as an insult. Following the battle, commanding Confederate General Johnson Hagood returned the bodies of the other Union officers who had died, but left Shaw's where it was. Hagood informed a captured Union surgeon that "had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial; as it is, I shall bury him in the common trench with the niggers that fell with him." Although the gesture was intended as an insult, it came to be seen as an honor by Shaw's friends and family that he was buried with his soldiers.
Efforts were made to recover Shaw's body (which had been stripped and robbed prior to burial), but his father publicly proclaimed that he was proud to know that his son was interred with his troops, befitting his role as a soldier and a crusader for emancipation. In a letter to the regimental surgeon, Lincoln Stone, Frank Shaw 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!"Annie Haggerty Shaw, a widow at the age of 28, never remarried. She lived with her family in New York, Lenox and abroad, a revered figure and in later years an invalid. She died in 1907 and is buried at the cemetery of Church-on-the Hill in Lenox.