GLORY  (1989)
Historical Context:  Print -- Video -- Online

[1]     In Boston on October 10, 1837, Robert Gould Shaw was born into one of the nation’s richest families.  He and four sisters were born to Francis George Shaw and Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, whose family ties had made millions in railroad, manufacturing, and real estate investments as well as the West India and China importing trades.

[2]     Shaw’s home schooling ended when he was sent to a private grammar school and later a Jesuit boarding school in FordhamNew York.  He continued his secondary education abroad at schools in SwitzerlandItaly, and Germany, where he developed a strong sense of national patriotism.  After three unfulfilling years at Harvard, Robert entered a brief stint as a clerk in his uncle Sturgis’s New York City mercantile firm.

[3]     The election of Abraham Lincoln and subsequent secession from the Union of southern states in 1860 incited Robert’s enlistment with the Seventh New York National Guard, an exclusive military regiment comprised of northern society’s elite.  The young men volunteered their services following the incident at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.  Following the unit’s 30-day term, a 22 year-old Robert extended his service and obtained an officer’s commission with the Second Massachusetts Infantry as a second lieutenant.  With this newly formed infantry, Shaw had his first encounter with men of other social classes and began to value the effectiveness of discipline.

[4]     After a skirmish during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Shaw and the Second would see more intense battle and experience heavy losses in the Northern Virginia Campaign at the Cedar Mountain Wheatfield on August 9, 1862, and in Maryland at the Battle of Antietam on September 17.  Following these battles, the Second was inactive, and it would not be until the Emancipation Proclamation that Shaw’s would take on a greater role.

[5]     On January 1, 1863, subsequent to the Union victory at Antietam, President Lincoln warned the Confederacy that their slaves would be freed if they did not return to the Union, in effect setting three million slaves free.  Consequently, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued the authority to enlist Negroes in the Union ranks.  Massachusetts Governor John Andrew quickly received permission from Stanton to form a black volunteer regiment, the 54th.  Through his impressive resume, abolitionist ideals, and well-established family connections, Robert Shaw was offered the colonelcy of the new regiment.  Following some inner turmoil and indecisiveness with leaving the Second, Shaw acquiesced.

[6]     Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and significant abolitionist social reformer, lead the movement for northern blacks to enlist with the 54th Regiment.  From February through March of 1863, Shaw ran a very disciplined and intense training regimen at Camp Meigs outside of Boston.  Shaw promised his soldiers would be properly nourished and equipped with uniforms and supplies.

[7]     Through the rigorous training, Shaw became better acquainted with his men and more understanding of their upbringings.  On multiple occasions, Col. Shaw fought for his regiment to be treated as equal Union soldiers.  At one point, Shaw’s men were receiving significantly less pay than other white soldiers.  To combat this issue, Robert immediately wrote to Gov. Andrew emphatically stating that if his men were not going to be paid their just amount then they would no longer serve for the Union.  Shaw also continually fought for his men to have the opportunity to go to battle, claiming that they were both capable and fierce.

[8]     In early June, a good reputation led to the 54th's request to join Col. Montgomery on St.Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia.  Shaw’s greatest embarrassment and sacrifice ensued.  Orders from higher ranks instructed the 54th, as well as the Second South Carolina, to pillage and burn the town of Darien, Georgia.  This event that Shaw strongly protested against haunted him because of its barbaric nature and the poor reflection it made on his men.  Shaw was now more eager to prove strength and capacity of the 54th.

[9]     A pivotal plan of attack was laid out to invade Charleston, undermine the Confederacy’s strategy, and, in effect, recapture Ft.Sumter.  To Col. Shaw’s dismay, the 54th was not asked to fight alongside the white soldiers.  As a result, Shaw wrote to his brigade commander conveying his dissatisfaction and stressing his regiment’s ability and worth.

[10]     On July 16th, Shaw’s requests were answered.  The 54th was ordered to James Island to resist a Rebel offensive.  As Shaw expected, his men fought well with the other white soldiers.  Their valor was noted and led to an indomitable challenge from General Strong.  Shaw and his men were asked to lead a charge on Fort Wagner.  If successful, this daunting mission would nearly secure a Union victory.  Fearing that this assignment would be his last, Shaw answered on behalf of his proud men with a resounding “yes.”

[11]     Leading the charge on July 18th, Shaw and his men were facing a barrage of heavy fire from the Rebel forces.  After the front lines were eliminated in a bloody fashion, Shaw assembled the remaining men to scale the parapets of Ft.Wagner.  Reaching the top of the fortification, Shaw, along with many of his men, was shot dead.  Because of the South’s disgust that a white man would lead an all-black regiment, Shaw was buried in the sand along with his men.

[12]     This mission proved to be unsuccessful, but it did not go down as a failure.  Their fortitude and accomplishment was symbolic of the Union’s cause, opening the doors of opportunity for Blacks in the United States for many years to come.  The courage and resilience of Shaw and his men is forever remembered and has been permanently memorialized on the Saint-Gaudens memorial in the Boston Common.

Print Resources

Blatt, Martin H., Thomas J. Brown, and Donald Yacovone.  Hope & Glory.  Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2001.

This book examines the lasting influence of the most famous black military unit of the Civil War. Bringing together the best new research on the history of the 54th, the formation of collective memory and identity, and the ways Americans have responded to the story of the first black regiment, Hope and Glory does an exceptional job at examining the roles of race and society in the United States through history, literature, art, music, and popular culture.

Burchard, Peter. One Gallant RushNew York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.

One Gallant Rush biographically follows the story of Shaw’s life and experiences in commanding the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Duncan, Russell. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.

Duncan initiates the book with a biographical essay on Robert Gould Shaw and follows with Shaw’s documented letters, which were the basis for the film. The letters portray the celebrated abolitionist hero in his own words, revealing a young man who is at many points different than the confident Shaw depicted in film and in history. The reader gets a strong sense of his initial ambivalence with the "cause" and a good glimpse of Shaw’s transformation from an upper-class youth into a brave and devoted soldier.

---. Where Death and Glory Meet.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 1999.

In this biography by Duncan, Shaw’s life is again evaluated in his maturation process. Based on the letters from Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, Duncan, through examining complex family relationships, shows Shaw as a rebellious son who never fully reconciled his own racial prejudices yet still went on to command and give his life up for the 54th Regiment and the cause of freedom.

Glatthaar, Joseph T.  Forged in Battle.  New York: Free Press, 1990.

This historical exploration details the uneasy alliance between black soldiers and white officers who, divided by racial tension and ideology, were united by the trials and bonds of the war they fought side by side.

Gooding, Corporal James Henry. On the Altar of Freedom.  Ed. Virginia Adams.  Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1991.

In this book, letters from Gooding, a black soldier on the front line, are arranged and edited by Virginia Adams.  These letters give an unparalleled view of the activities and feelings of a black regiment by a well-read, creative, and witty man.

Hargrove, Hondon B. Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War.Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1988.

This book refutes the historical slander that blacks did not fight for their emancipation from slavery.

Kirstein, Lincoln, and Richard Benson.  Lay This LaurelNew York: Eakin Press2001.

Lay This Laurel is an album on the Saint-Gaudens memorial on Boston Common, honoring Black and white men together who served the Union cause with Robert Gould Shaw and died with him July 18, 1863This piece was used as key ingredient for Director Edward Zwick in creating Glory.

Smith, John David. Black Soldiers in Blue.  Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002.

Essays in Black Soldiers in Blue focus on the role of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). It recounts the contributions of the many African Americans who fought all over the country, exploring events such as the recruitment process of black troops; the leadership of Colonels Thomas Higginson, James Montgomery, and Robert Shaw; and the experiences of USCT vets in postwar North Carolina.

See also: 

Berlin, Ira, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland. Freedom’s SoldiersCambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Video Resources

From the Special Edition Glory DVD Documentary:  “The True Story of Glory Continues,” Narrated by Morgan Freeman. Exclusive Featurette: “Voices of Glory.”

The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry.  PBS Video, 1991.

Royal Federal Blues: The Story of the African-American Civil War Soldier.  Parade Video, 1990.

Online Resources

Boston African American National Historic Site

This site is a comprehensive and accurate account of Black Bostonians and the Civil War, focusing on the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

This site is a precise and in-depth biographical look at the life of Robert Gould Shaw.


Copyright (c) 2003, Todd Scurci and Denny Boyle, Undergraduates at LehighUniversity.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.