May 28, 1863 was the day of one of the city of Boston’s proudest moments. On that day, four hundred men marched off to battle: the men of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the Union Army’s first African American regiment.
Leading the column was slender, blond-haired young Robert Gould Shaw, the scion of an upper-crust Boston family. Shaw, a devoted abolitionist, had been proud to accept the commission, and his family, transcendentalists who believed in a utopia of virtue, were likewise proud of him.
Not all of Boston agreed. Prejudice against blacks was still strong in polite Boston society. As the regiment passed through the city, some booed and others threw stones. Yet most of the thousands of Bostonians lining the streets were greatly moved by the sight: four hundred black met proudly marching to battle so their brothers might be free.
Some in the crowd threw flowers at Colonel Shaw, who paused to kiss his sword in salute as the procession passed his family’s house.
A few months later, Colonel Shaw was ordered to attack Fort Wagner on the South Carolina coast. As he led the charge up the parapet, he was killed under heavy fire. Because he was leading a black regiment, the Confederate commander refused to give him a proper military funeral; Shaw was thrown into a common grave with his fallen black soldiers.
Shaw’s father refused to have his son’s body recovered; he believed that for Colonel Shaw to be buried with his soldiers in a common grave was a more fitting tribute than any monument.