SHAW, Robert Gould (1837-1863), Colonel, 54th Massachusetts. Autograph letter signed ("Robert G. Shaw") to Professor Rogers, Sandy Hook, Md., 22 September 1862. 1 page, 8vo, ruled paper, with autograph envelope on Second Massachusetts Volunteers stationery.
SHAW CONTEMPLATES THE CARNAGE AT ANTIETAM: "YOU CAN HARDLY IMAGINE THE HORROR OF THAT BATTLEFIELD THE FOLLOWING DAY."
A HURRIED BUT REVEALING LETTER PENNED ONLY FIVE DAYS AFTER ANTIETAM. "Will you please to let me know from time to time what you hear from Jim. I am anxious to know whether he is getting along well. A rumour has just reached us that Capt. Quincy had been heard from. Did you know it? We had a terrible battle last week. May we soon see the last of them and of the war. You can hardly imagine the horror of that battlefield the following day. Excuse my haste." Antietam was more horrible than any American could imagine in 1862. Such carnage was unprecedented in American history--and unequaled to this day. At the close of battle on 17 September, James McPherson writes, "Night fell on a scene of horror beyond imagining. Nearly 6,000 men lay dead or dying, and another 17,000 wounded groaned in agony or endured in silence. The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the war of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American war combined." The carnage of Antietam, said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (who, like Shaw, was wounded on the field that day) was "a commentary on civilization such as a savage might well triumph to show its missionaries." (Katz, 47)
Shortly after Antietam, Massachusetts governor John Andrew chose Shaw to lead the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment of black troops. Fighting the racism of Union soldiers and bureaucrats as well as the Rebels, Col. Shaw honed the 54th's recruits into a potent fighting force. Their valor was never more evident than in a near suicidal assault on Fort Wagner, in Charleston Harbor, in 1863. Shaw, along with many of his men, lost his life in the attack. When his family tried to get his body back, the Rebel commander contemptuously advised that "We have buried him with his niggers" in a mass grave. What the Southerners saw as the ultimate indignity, Shaw's father turned into an honor: "We hold that a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen" (McPherson, 686-687).