More than 150 years ago, a dead Union officer’s sword was claimed by Confederate troops after a bloody battle near Charleston, South Carolina.
Owned by the commanding officer of the North’s first all-black regiment, the historic English sword marked with the engraved initials of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was recently recovered in an attic in Boston. It had been out of public view—and presumed lost—for over a century.
At dusk on July 18, 1863, 25-year-old Colonel Shaw led his unit, the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, to attack Fort Wagner, near Charleston. It was the first time in the Civil War that black troops led an infantry attack. Unfortunately, the 600 men of the 54th were outgunned and outnumbered. Heavy losses were sustained by both sides in what is known as the Second Battle of Fort Wagner; the fighting concluded with over 1,500 Union troops dead or captured to the Confederates’ 222. Shaw himself was killed, his body stripped of clothing and belongings by Confederate soldiers—including his sword. Colonel Shaw was a white officer leading an all-black unit, which was customary at the time. (The story of the unit’s attack on Fort Wagner was depicted in the 1989 film Glory, with Matthew Broderick playing Shaw).
The sword was recovered from a Confederate soldier about two years later and returned to Shaw’s parents after the war. Since he had no children of his own, the sword was given to Shaw’s sister, Susanna Minturn. From there, the trail of the sword went cold.
Details about the sword had already made it into the historical record, however. Luis F. Emilio, Captain in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was the highest ranking officer left standing after the attack on Fort Wagner. After serving in the Civil War, he devoted the rest of his life to compiling the history of the 54th regiment, according to Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts at the Massachusetts Historical Society. It was Emilio’s detailed accounts of the war, including what Shaw wore the night of the attack, that gave the Massachusetts Historical Society their first clues about the sword. He even wrote an article for the Boston Daily Advertiser, on August 7, 1883, where he described the sword Shaw carried at Fort Wagner, noting that it was an English sword with the initials RGF engraved.
Fast forward to 2017, when Minturn’s descendants were clearing out the house of their deceased mother. They found a sword and noted the engraved initials. The family notified the Massachusetts Historical Society, curious if this was the long-lost sword used at the attack on Fort Wagner.
The MHS began to verify its authenticity. They matched the serial number to the records of English swordsmith Henry Wilkinson—each sword that Wilkinson made had a unique serial number. The organization was able to verify that this sword matched the sword used by Colonel Shaw in the assault on Fort Wagner.
Shaw only had this sword for about a month, and it is believed to have been used in battle twice. It is believed that once the sword was taken by a Confederate soldier, he likely used it for the remainder of the Civil War.
While instances of African Americans fighting in wars were not unheard of—black soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary War and, unofficially, in the War of 1812—the Civil War was the first time African Americans were allowed to officially enlist in the U.S. Army.
After the Civil War broke out, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass petitioned to have African Americans fight. He argued that the enlistment of black soldiers would help the North win the war and would be a huge step in the fight for equal rights. Nervous to upset the loyal border states, President Lincoln at first refused, but started to reconsider his position after two grueling years of war. Early in February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first official call for black soldiers. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was formed.
The all-black units were always led by white officers like Colonel Shaw. African Americans were fighting their allies and their opponents to prove their worthiness as soldiers. There were many Union officers who believed that black soldiers were not as skilled or as brave as white soldiers. Battle was extremely dangerous for black soldiers, and their white officers. If caught by the Confederates black soldiers could be forced into slavery and white officers might be executed or kept as prisoners of war.
While, the attack on Fort Wagner was a failure—it was also crucial. It proved that African American forces could not only hold their own, but could also excel in battle.
The sword, along with other articles of Shaw’s, will go on display at the Massachusetts History Society on July 18—the 154th anniversary of Shaw’s death—until September.