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July 18, 1863

Picture of William Harvey Carney with the battle flag

The (second) assault on Fort Wagner took place today, with 600 men of the 54th Massachusetts in the lead of three brigades. The regiment reached the top of the parapet, but was repulsed. Shaw was killed at the top of the parapet, rallying the 54th forward. Of the 600 men of the 54th, 272 were casualties: killed, wounded or captured. William Harvey Carney (at right, with the flag) received the Medal of Honor for his actions, as cited: “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”
Below is Shaw’s last letter, to his father, followed by a letter from 1st Sergeant Robert Simmons to the New York Tribune. (Simmons was wounded and taken prisoner in the assault; he died in Charleston.) Following Simmons’s letter, Emilio provides a description of the assault ( [BBR], pp.72-85). Below Emilio’s description is a popular lithograph of the assault (Kurz & Allison, 1890). Finally, an additional page of images and maps relating to Fort Wagner is provided here.

Morris Island [BCF]

July 18,1863

Dear Father,

I enclose this letter for Annie, which I didn’t intend to send you, because it is impossible to tell whether I can write again by this mail. If I do, please send this to Annie without taking it home, and tell her why it didn’t go direct.

We hear nothing but praise of the Fifty-fourth on all hands. Montgomery is under Stevenson. I wish I were. He is a good soldier. Strong I like too.

Love to Mother and the girls.

New York Tribune, December 23, 1863 [GABM]pp.33-34
R.J. Simmons, 1st Sergeant, Co. B, 54th Massachusetts Infantry,

Folly Island, South Carolina
July 18, 1863;

We are on the march to Fort Wagner, to storm it. We have just completed our successful retreat from James Island; we fought a desperate battle there Thursday morning. Three companies of us, B, H, and K, were out on picket about a good mile in advance of the regiment. We were attacked early in the morning. Our company was in the reserve, when the outposts were attacked by rebel infantry and cavalry. I was sent out by our Captain in command of a squad of men to support the left flank. The bullets fairly rained around us; when I got there the poor fellows were falling down around me, with pitiful groans. Our pickets only numbered about 250 men, attacked by about 900. It is supposed by the line of battle in the distance, that they were supported by reserve of 3,000 men. We had to fire and retreat toward our own encampment. One poor Sergeant of ours was shot down along side of me; several others were wounded near me.

God has protected me through this, my first fiery, leaden trial, and I do give Him the glory, and render my praises unto His holy name. My poor friend [Sergeant Peter] Vogelsang is shot through the lungs; his case is critical, but the doctor says he may probably live. His company suffered very much. Poor good and brave Sergeant (Joseph D.] Wilson of his company [H], after killing four rebels with his bayonet, was shot through the head by the fifth one. Poor fellow! May his noble spirit rest in peace. The General has complimented the Colonel on the galantry and bravery of his regiment.

Upon arriving at Morris Island, Colonel Shaw and Adjutant James walked toward the front to report to General Strong, whom they at last found, and who announced that Fort Wagner was to be stormed that evening. Knowing Colonel Shaw’s desire to place his men beside white troops, he said, ” You may lead the column, if you say ‘yes.’ Your men, I know, are worn out, but do as you choose.” Shaw’s face brightened, and before replying, he requested Adjutant James to return and have Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell bring up the Fifty-fourth. Adjutant James, who relates this interview, then departed on his mission. Receiving this order, the regiment marched on to General Strong’s headquarters, where a halt of five minutes was made about 6 o’clock p. M.  Noticing the worn look of the men, who had passed two days without an issue of rations, and no food since morning, when the weary march began, the general expressed his sympathy and his great desire that they might have food and stimulant. It could not be, however, for it was necessary that the regiment should move on to the position assigned.

Detaining Colonel Shaw to take supper with him,  General Strong sent the Fifty-fourth forward under the lieutenant-colonel toward the front, moving by the middle road west of the sand-hills. Gaining a point where these elevations gave place to low ground, the long blue line of the regiment advancing by the flank attracted the attention of the enemy’s gunners on James Island. Several solid shot were fired at the column, without doing any damage, but they ricochetted ahead or over the line in dangerous proximity. Realizing that the national colors and the white flag of the State especially attracted the enemy’s fire, the bearers began to roll them up on the staves. At the same moment, Captain Simpkins, commanding the color company (K) turned to observe his men. His quick eye noted the half-furled flags, and his gallant spirit took fire in a moment at the sight. Pointing to the flags with uplifted sword, he commanded in imperative tones, ” Unfurl those colors!” It was done, and the fluttering silks again waved, untrammelled, in the air.

Colonel Shaw, at about 6.30 P. M., mounted and accompanied General Strong toward the front. After proceeding a short distance, he turned back, and gave to Mr. Edward L. Pierce, a personal friend, who had been General Strong’s guest for several days, his letters and some papers, with a request to forward them to his family if anything occurred to him requiring such service. That sudden purpose accomplished, he galloped away, overtook the regiment, and informed Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell of what the Fifty-fourth was expected to do. The direction was changed to the right, advancing east toward the sea. By orders, Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell broke the column at the sixth company, and led the companies of the left wing to the rear of those of the right wing. When the sea beach was reached, the regiment halted and came to rest, awaiting the coming up of the supporting regiments.

General Gillmore had assigned to General Seymour the command of the assaulting column, charging him with its organization, formation, and all the details of the attack. His force was formed into three brigades of infantry : the first under General Strong, composed of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, Sixth Connecticut, Forty-eighth New York, Third New Hampshire, Ninth Maine, and Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania; the second, under Col. Haldimand S. Putnam, of his own regiment, —the Seventh New Hampshire, — One Hundredth New York, Sixty-second and Sixty-seventh Ohio; the third, or reserve brigade, under Brig.-Gen. Thomas G. Stevenson, of the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts, Tenth Connecticut, Ninety-seventh Pennsylvania, and Second South Carolina. Four companies of the Seventh Connecticut, and some regular and volunteer artillery-men manned and served the guns of the siege line.

Formed in column of wings, with the right resting near the sea, at a short distance in advance of the works, the men of the Fifty-fourth were ordered to lie down, their muskets loaded but not capped, and bayonets fixed. There the regiment remained for half an hour, while the formation of the storming column and reserve was perfected. To the Fifty-fourth had been given the post of honor, not by chance, but by deliberate selection. General Seymour has stated the reasons why this honorable but dangerous duty was assigned the regiment in the following words:—

“It was believed that the Fifty-fourth was in every respect as efficient as any other body of men ; and as it was one of the strongest and best officered, there seemed to be no good reason why it should not be selected for the advance. This point was decided by General Strong and myself.”

In numbers the Fifty-fourth had present but six hundred men, for besides the large camp guard and the sick left at St. Helena Island, and the losses sustained on James Island, on the 16th, a fatigue detail of eighty men under Lieut. Francis L. Higginson, did not participate in the attack.

The formation of the regiment for the assault was, as shown in the diagram below, with Companies B and E on the right of the respective wings.



Colonel Shaw, Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, Adjutant James, seven captains, and twelve lieutenants, — a total of twenty-two officers, — advanced to the assault. Surgeon Stone and Quartermaster Ritchie were present on the field. Both field officers were dismounted; the band and musicians acted as stretcher-bearers. To many a gallant man these scenes upon the sands were the last of earth; to the survivors they will be ever present. Away over the sea to the eastward the heavy sea-fog was gathering, the western sky bright with the reflected light, for the sun had set. Far away thunder mingled with the occasional boom of cannon. The gathering host all about, the silent lines stretching away to the rear, the passing of a horseman now and then carrying orders, — all was ominous of the impending onslaught. Far and indistinct in front was the now silent earthwork, seamed, scarred, and ploughed with shot, its flag still waving in defiance.

Among the dark soldiers who were to lead veteran regiments which were equal in drill and discipline to any in the country, there was a lack of their usual light-heartedness, for they realized, partially at least, the dangers they were to encounter. But there was little nervousness and no depression observable. It took but a touch to bring out their irrepressible spirit and humor in the old way. When a cannon-shot from the enemy came toward the line and passed over, a man or two moved nervously, calling out a sharp reproof from Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, whom the men still spoke of as “the major.” Thereupon one soldier quietly remarked to his comrades, ” I guess the major forgets what kind of balls them is! ” Another added, thinking of the foe, ” I guess they kind of ’spec’s we ‘re coming!”

Naturally the officers’ thoughts were largely regarding their men. Soon they would know whether the lessons they had taught of soldierly duty would bear good fruit. Would they have cause for exultation or be compelled to sheathe their swords, rather than lead cowards? Unknown to them, the whole question of employing three hundred thousand colored soldiers hung in the balance. But few, however, doubted the result. Wherever a white officer led that night, even to the gun-muzzles and bayonet-points, there, by his side, were black men as brave and steadfast as himself.

At last the formation of the column was nearly perfected. The Sixth Connecticut had taken position in column of companies just in rear of the Fifty-fourth. About this time, Colonel Shaw walked back to Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, and said, ” I shall go in advance with the National flag. You will keep the State flag with you; it will give the men something to rally round. We shall take the fort or die there! Good-by!”

Presently, General Strong, mounted upon a spirited gray horse, in full uniform, with a yellow handkerchief bound around his neck, rode in front of the Fifty-fourth, accompanied by two aids and two orderlies. He addressed the men,’ and his words, as given by an officer of the regiment, were: “Boys, I am a Massachusetts man, and I know you will fight for the honor of the State. I am sorry you must go into the fight tired and hungry, but the men in the fort are tired too. There are but three hundred behind those walls, and they have been fighting all day. Don’t fire a musket on the way up, but go in and bayonet them at their guns.” Calling out the color-bearer, he said, ” If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on ? ” Colonel Shaw, standing near, took a cigar from between his lips, and said quietly, ” I will.” The men loudly responded to Colonel Shaw’s pledge, while General Strong rode away to give the signal for advancing.

Colonel Shaw calmly walked up and down the line of his regiment. He was clad in a close-fitting staff-officer’s jacket, with a silver eagle denoting his rank on each shoulder. His trousers were light blue; a fine narrow silk sash was wound round his waist beneath the jacket. Upon his head was a high felt army hat with cord. Depending from his sword-belt was a field-officer’s sword of English manufacture, with the initials of his name worked into the ornamentation of the guard. On his hand was an antique gem set in a ring. In his pocket was a gold watch, marked with his name, attached to a gold chain. Although he had given certain papers and letters to his friend, Mr. Pierce, he retained his pocket-book, which doubtless contained papers which would establish his identity. His manner, generally reserved before his men, seemed to unbend to them, for he spoke as he had never done before. He said, ” Now I want you to prove yourselves men,” and reminded them that the eyes of thousands would look upon the night’s work. His bearing was composed and graceful; his cheek had somewhat paled; and the slight twitching of the corners of his mouth plainly showed that the whole cost was counted, and his expressed determination to take the fort or die was to be carried out.

Meanwhile the twilight deepened, as the minutes, drawn put by waiting, passed, before the signal was given. Officers had silently grasped one another’s hands, brought their revolvers round to the front, and tightened their sword-belts. The men whispered last injunctions to comrades, and listened for the word of command. The preparations usual in an assault were not made. There was no provision for cutting away obstructions, filling the ditch, or spiking the guns. No special instructions were given the stormers; no line of skirmishers or covering party was thrown out; no engineers or guides accompanied the column; no artillery-men to serve captured guns; no plan of the work was shown company officers. It was understood that the fort would be assaulted with the bayonet, and that the Fifty-fourth would be closely supported.

While on the sands a few cannon-shots had reached the regiment, one passing between the wings, another over to the right. When the inaction had become almost unendurable, the signal to advance came. Colonel Shaw walked along the front to the centre, and giving the command, ” Attention!” the men sprang to their feet. Then came the admonition, “Move in quick time until within a hundred yards of the fort; then double quick, and charge!” A slight pause, followed by the sharp command, ” Forward!” and the Fifty-fourth advanced to the storming.

There had been a partial resumption of the bombardment during the formation, but now only an occasional shot was heard. The enemy in Wagner had seen the preparations, knew what was coming, and were awaiting the blow. With Colonel Shaw leading, sword in hand, the long advance over three quarters of a mile of sand had begun, with wings closed up and company officers admonishing their men to preserve the alignment. Guns from Sumter, Sullivan’s Island, and James Island, began to play upon the regiment. It was about 7.45 p. M., with darkness coming on rapidly, when the Fifty-fourth moved. With barely room for the formation from the first, the narrowing way between the sand hillocks and the sea soon caused a strong pressure to the right, so that Captains Willard and Emilio on the right of the right companies of their wings were with some of their men forced to march in water up to their knees, at each incoming of the sea. Moving at quick time, and preserving its formation as well as the difficult ground and narrowing way permitted, the Fifty-fourth was approaching the defile made by the easterly sweep of the marsh. Darkness was rapidly com-ing on, and each moment became deeper. Soon men on the flanks were compelled to fall behind, for want of room to continue in line. The centre only had a free path, and with eyes strained upon the colonel and the flag, they pressed on toward the work, now only two hundred yards away.

At that moment Wagner became a mound of fire, from which poured a stream of shot and shell. Just a brief lull, and the deafening explosions of cannon were renewed, mingled with the crash and rattle of musketry. A sheet of flame, followed by a running fire, like electric sparks, swept along the parapet, as the Fifty-first North Carolina gave a direct, and the Charleston Battalion a left-oblique, fire on the Fifty-fourth. Their Thirty-first North Carolina had lost heart, and failed to take position in the southeast bastion, — fortunately, too, for had its musketry fire been added to that delivered, it is doubtful whether any Federal troops could have passed the defile. When this tempest of war came, before which men fell in numbers on every side, the only response the Fifty-fourth made to the deadly challenge was to change step to the double-quick, that it might the sooner close with the foe. There had been no stop, pause, or check at any period of the advance, nor was there now. As the swifter pace was taken, and officers sprang to the fore with waving swords barely seen in the darkness, the men closed the gaps, and with set jaws, panting breath, and bowed heads, charged on.

Wagner’s wall, momentarily lit up by cannon-flashes, was still the goal toward which the survivors rushed in sadly diminished numbers. It was now dark, the gloom made more intense by the blinding explosions in the front. This terrible fire which the regiment had just faced, probably caused the greatest number of casualties sustained by the Fifty-fourth in the assault; for nearer the work the men were somewhat sheltered by the high parapet. Every flash showed the ground dotted with men of the regiment, killed or wounded. Great holes, made by the huge shells of the navy or the land batteries, were pitfalls into which the men stumbled or fell.

Colonel Shaw led the regiment to the left toward the curtain of the work, thus passing the southeast bastion, and leaving it to the right hand. From that salient no musketry fire came; and some Fifty-fourth men first entered it, not following the main body by reason of the darkness. As the survivors drew near the work, they encountered the flanking fire delivered from guns in the southwest salient, and the howitzers outside the fort, which swept the trench, where further severe losses were sustained. Nothing but the ditch now separated the stormers and the foe. Down into this they went, through the two or three feet of water therein, and mounted the slope beyond in the teeth of the enemy, some of whom, standing on the crest, fired down on them with depressed pieces. Both flags were planted on the parapet, the national flag carried there and gallantly maintained by the brave Sergt. William H. Carney of Company C.

In the pathway from the defile to the fort many brave men had fallen. Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell was severely wounded in the groin, Captain Willard in the leg, Adjutant James in the ankle and side, Lieutenant Homans in the shoulder. Lieutenants Smith and Pratt were also wounded. Colonel Shaw had led his regiment from first to last. Gaining the rampart, he stood there for a moment with uplifted sword, shouting, “Forward, Fifty-fourth !” and then fell dead, shot through the heart, besides other wounds.

Not a shot had been fired by the regiment up to this time. As the crest was gained, the crack of revolver-shots was heard, for the officers fired into the surging mass of upturned faces confronting them, lit up redly but a moment by the powder-flashes. Musket-butts and bayonets were freely used on the parapet, where the stormers were gallantly met. The garrison fought with muskets, handspikes, and gun-rammers, the officers striking with their swords, so close were the combatants. Numbers, however, soon told against the Fifty-fourth, for it was tens against hundreds. Outlined against the sky, they were a fair mark for the foe. Men fell every moment during the brief struggle. Some of the wounded crawled down the slope to shelter; others fell headlong into the ditch below.

It was seen from the volume of musketry fire, even before the walls were gained, that the garrison was stronger than had been supposed, and brave in defending the work. The first rush had failed, for those of the Fifty-fourth who reached the parapet were too few in numbers to overcome the garrison, and the supports were not at hand to take full advantage of their first fierce attack. Repulsed from the crest after the short hand-to-hand struggle, the assailants fell back upon the exterior slope of the rampart. There the men were encouraged to remain by their officers, for by sweeping the top of the parapet with musketry, and firing at those trying to serve the guns, they would greatly aid an advancing force. For a time this was done, but at the cost of more lives. The enemy’s fire became more effective as the numbers of the Fifty-fourth diminished. Hand grenades or lighted shells were rolled down the slope, or thrown over into the ditch.

All this time the remaining officers and men of the Fifty-fourth were firing at the hostile figures about the guns, or that they saw spring upon the parapet, fire, and jump away. One brave fellow, with his broken arm lying across his breast, was piling cartridges upon it for Lieutenant Emerson, who, like other officers, was using a musket he had picked up. Another soldier, tired of the enforced combat, climbed the slope to his fate; for in a moment his dead body rolled down again. A particularly severe fire came from the southwest bastion. There a Confederate was observed, who, stripped to the waist, with daring exposure for some time dealt out fatal shots; but at last three eager marksmen fired together, and he fell back into the fort, to appear no more. Capt. J. W. M. Appleton distinguished himself before the curtain. He crawled into an embrasure, and with his pistol prevented the artillery-men from serving the gun. Private George Wilson of Company A had been shot through both shoulders, but refused to go back until he had his captain’s permission. While occupied with this faithful soldier, who came to him as he lay in the embrasure, Captain Appleton’s attention was distracted, and the gun was fired.

In the fighting upon the slopes of Wagner, Captains Russel and Simpkins were killed or mortally wounded. Captain Pope there received a severe wound in the shoulder.

All these events had taken place in a short period of time. The charge of the Fifty-fourth had been made and repulsed before the arrival of any other troops. Those who had clung to the bloody slopes or were lying in the ditch, hearing fighting going on at their right, realized at last that the expected succor would not reach them where they were. To retire through the enveloping fire was as dangerous and deadly as to advance. Some that night preferred capture to the attempt at escaping; but the larger portion managed to fall back, singly or in squads, beyond the musketry fire of the garrison.

Captain Emilio, the junior of that rank, succeeded to the command of the Fifty-fourth on the field by casualties. After retiring from Wagner to a point where men were encountered singly or in small squads, he determined to rally as many as possible. With the assistance of Lieutenants Grace and Dexter, a large portion of the Fifty-fourth survivors were collected and formed in line, together with a considerable number of white soldiers of various regiments. While thus engaged, the national flag of the Fifty-fourth was brought to Captain Emilio; but as it was useless as a rallying-point in the darkness, it was sent to the rear for safety. Sergeant Carney had bravely brought this flag from Wagner’s parapet, at the cost of two grievous wounds. The State color was torn from the staff, the silk was found by the enemy in the moat, while the staff remained with us.

Finding a line of rifle trench unoccupied and no indication that dispositions were being made for holding it, believing that the enemy would attempt a sortie, which was indeed contemplated but not attempted, Captain Emilio there stationed his men, disposed to defend the line. Other men were collected as they appeared. Lieu-tenant Tucker, slightly wounded, who was among the last to leave the sand hills near the fort, joined this force.

Desultory firing was still going on, and after a time, being informed that some troops were in the open ground, the force, numbering some two hundred, was formed by its commander, and advanced from the rifle trench. It is believed this was the only organized body of rallied men ready and able to support Stevenson’s brigade, which alone was prepared after the repulse of the others to resist attack. Presently the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts was encountered; but upon reporting, it was found that support was not required. Marching back to the still deserted trench, that line was again occupied. By midnight firing entirely ceased. About 1 A. M., on the 19th, a mounted officer rode up, inquired what force held the trench, and asked for the commanding officer. Captain Emilio responded, and recognized General Stevenson, who thanked him for the support given the reserve brigade, and his dispositions for holding the line. He was also informed that a regiment would be sent to relieve his men, and shortly after, the Tenth Connecticut arrived for that purpose. When this was done, the white soldiers were formed into detachments by regiments, and sent to find their colors.

The Fifty-fourth men were then marched to the rear, and after proceeding a short distance down the beach, encountered Lieutenants Jewett, Emerson, and Appleton, with some of the men. There the Fifty-fourth bivouacked for the night, under the shelter of the sand-bluffs.

Lithograph of the Storming of Form Wagner

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July 15, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his wife Annie; it will turn out to be his last to her:

James’ Island, S.C. [BCF]
July 15,1863

My Dearest Annie,

Your letters of June 3d, 14th, and 28th, and July 3d, 4th, and 5th, came to-day, and I felt horridly ashamed of myself for having blamed you for not taking care to post your letters. Do excuse it. It will show you how much I value your dear letters.

You don’t know what a fortunate day this has been for me and for us all, excepting some poor fellows who were killed and wounded. We have at last fought alongside of white troops. Two hundred of my men on picket this morning were attacked by five regiments of infantry, some cavalry, and a battery of artillery. The Tenth Connecticut (of Stevenson’s Brigade) were on their left, and say they should have had a bad time, if the Fifty-fourth men had not stood so well. The whole Division was under arms in fifteen minutes, and after coming up close in front of us, the enemy, finding us so strong, fell back. The other regiments lost in all, three men wounded. We lost seven killed, twenty-one wounded, six missing, supposed killed, and nine unaccounted for. These last are probably killed or captured.  All these belonged to the four companies which were on picket. The main body, excepting artillery, was not engaged at all.

All this is very gratifying to us personally, and a fine thing for the coloured troops. It is the first time they have been associated with white soldiers, this side of the Mississippi. To make my happiness and satisfaction complete, the afternoon brought your and Mother’s letters… .

I have just come in from the front with my regiment, where we were sent as soon as the Rebels retired. This shows that the events of the morning did not destroy the General’s confidence in us.

We found some of our wounded, who say the Rebels treated them kindly. Other men report that some prisoners were shot. It is very common for frightened men to tell fearful stories of what they have seen; the first report comes from the wounded men themselves; the second from the stragglers. . . .

Good bye, darling, for the night. I know this letter will give you pleasure, because what we have done to-day wipes out the remembrance of the Darien affair, which you could not but grieve over, though we were innocent participators. You will have some satisfaction in telling it to your father, your Uncle Charles, and Aunt Fanny, to all of whom please give my sincere regards. Whenever you see your grandfather and grandmother, do not forget to give them my respects. To our Mamma, and Clem. I needn’t say I send my warmest love. I got my horse, India-rubber tube, and some clean clothes to-day.

Cole’s Island (opposite Folly Island) [RGS]
July 17th, 4 P.M.

James Island was evacuated last night by our forces. My regiment started first, at 91/2 P.M. Not a thing was moved until after dark, and the Rebels must have been astonished this morning. Terry went there originally only to create a diversion from Morris Island, and it was useless to stay and risk being driven off, after Morris was taken. It thundered and lightened, and rained hard all night, and it took us from 10 P.M. to 5 A.M. to come four miles. Most of the way we had to march in single file along the narrow paths through the swamps. For nearly half a mile we had to pass over a bridge of one, and in some places, two planks wide, without a railing, and slippery with rain— mud and water below several feet deep—and then over a narrow dike so slippery as to make it almost impossible to keep one’s feet. It took my regiment alone nearly two hours to pass the bridge and dike. By the time we got over, it was nearly daylight, and the Brigade behind us had a pretty easy time. I never had such an extraordinary walk.

We are now lying on the beach opposite the southern point of Folly Island, and have been here since five this morning. When they can get boats, they will set us across, I suppose.

There is hardly any water to be got here, and the sun and sand arc dazzling and roasting us. I shouldn’t like you to see me as I am now; I haven’t washed my face since day before yesterday. My conscience is perfectly easy about it, though, for it was an impossibility, and every one is in the same condition. Open air dirt, i.e. mud, & is not like the indoor article.

… I have had nothing but crackers and coffee these two days. It seems like old times in the army of the Potomac.

Good bye again, darling Annie.


July 18th. Morris Island—We are in General Strong’s Brigade, and have left Montgomery, I hope for good. We came up here last night, and were out again all night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being very heavily bombarded. We arc not far from it.

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July 13, 1863

A (fragment) of a letter from Shaw to his wife Annie:

July 13,1863 [BCF]

My Dearest Annie,

I sent the family letter to Father, to this date, and you will get it very soon after this. You will see from it what we have been doing lately.

I should have been Major of the Second now if I had remained there, and lived through the battles. As regards my own pleasure, I had rather have that place than any other in the army. It would have been fine to go home, a field-officer in that regiment. Poor fellows, how they have been slaughtered! Our mail came to-night, but was taken away by mistake.

My warmest love to Mamma and Clem. . . . That country place of ours is often before my eyes in the dim future. .. .

[fragment printed]

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July 9, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his wife Annie, begun today, extended on the 11th, and completed on the 13:

Stono River, S.C. [RGS][BCF]
July 9,1863 (James’ Island)

My Darling Annie,

Just after closing my last, on the envelope of which I said we were ordered away from St. Helena’s Island, we embarked on board the “Chasseur.” We sailed at about 3 P.M., without anything but India-rubber blankets and a little hardbread, and arrived off Stono Inlet, near Charleston Harbour, at about one o’clock this morning. We lay off the bar until i P.M. waiting for the flood-tide. The sea was running very high all the time, so that the men were very sea-sick, and we had a decidedly uncomfortable day. In the night it rained hard, and we all got a good soaking, as it was too hot to stay below. At about 2 P.M. we came to an anchor at the southern point of Folly Island, and Colonel Montgomery reported to General Terry. We then steamed up the Stono River, in company with the Monitor “Nantucket,” the gunboat “Pawnee,” two other little gunboats, and seven transports containing General Terry’s Division.

We now lie off the place where General Hunter’s troops landed last year in the attack on Charleston. The sail up the river was beautiful, the sun just sinking as we reached our anchorage.

July 10th—Still on board our transport. Last night, two regiments landed, but encountered nothing but a few outposts. General Terry’s part is only to make a feint, the real attack being on Morris Island from Folly. That began this morning, and the news from there is, that General Gillmore has got all his troops on Morris Island, and has possession of nearly half of it.

This afternoon I went inland about two miles, and from a housetop saw Fort Sumter, our Monitors, and the spires of Charleston. Just now the news of the fall of Vicksburg, and of Lee’s defeat has reached us. What an excitement there must be through the North! For my part, though, I do not believe the end is coming yet, and the next mail will probably tell us that Lee has got away with a good part of his army; there is too much danger of our government making a compromise, for peace to be entirely welcome now. I am very glad that McClellan was not restored to command, for such vacillation in the government would have been too contemptible. Every one can rejoice at Meade’s success, as he is as yet identified with no party. I hope the prisoners will not be paroled, for they will be in the army again in a month, if they are.

I found a classmate, to-day, on board the “Nantucket,” surgeon there, and George Lawrence, of the class above me, paymaster on board the “Pawnee.”They are both very nice fellows; particularly so, because they have invited me to dinner; having had hardly anything but hard-bread and salt-junk since we left camp, a good dinner is to be desired.

July 11th—This morning I got a paper from General Terry of July 7th, giving an incomplete list of the killed and wounded in the Second and Twentieth Massachusetts Regiments at Gettysburg. Poor Mudge is dead, I see. It will be a terrible blow to his family. You know he was my captain when we first went out. But every one must expect to lose their friends and relatives, and consider themselves as particularly favoured by Providence if they do not. General Gillmore made an attack on Ft. Wagner this morning, and was repulsed. He will probably begin a regular siege now. Fort Wagner is half-way down Morris Island.

Saturday evening — We landed at noon to-day, and are now about two miles inland. There are two Brigades in line in advance of us. I don’t think anything will be done on this side.

13th — Yesterday I dined with Lawrence on board the “Pawnee,” and met some very pleasant men among the officers. It has been very fortunate for me to have found so many old acquaintances here, as it has been the means of my meeting a great many people who would have otherwise been disinclined to make the acquaintance of an officer commanding a black regiment.

Our men are out on picket with the white regiments, and have no trouble with them. One of my companies was driven in by a small force of Rebels last night, and behaved very well indeed. The Rebel pickets call to us, that they will give us three days to clear out.

… There is a letter from Father a month old at Beaufort, and perhaps your missing ones are there. I shall send this to Father, as our conveniences for writing are very few, and I cannot write another letter in time for this mail.

We have not had out clothes off since we left St. Helena, and have absolutely nothing but an India-rubber blanket apiece. Officers and men are in the same boat. I sent down to-day to get a clean shirt and a horse. They will not allow any accumulation of luggage here.

The general feeling is that Gillmore will get Charleston at last. . . .

Governor Andrew writes that he has urged the Secretary of War to send General Barlow here to take command of the black troops. This is what I have been asking him to do for some time.

We got some ham for dinner to-day, which is an improvement on salt-junk. I hope the mail will be allowed to go this time.

Good bye, dearest Annie.

Your loving Rob

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July 6, 1863

A letter from Charles Douglass to his father Frederick Douglass — Charles originally enlisted in the 54th, but transferred to the 55th Mass. as it was forming in May, and later in 1864, transferred to the 5th Massachusets Cavalry (colored), a dismounted unit; together with a long letter from Shaw to his wife:

Readville Camp Meigs
July 6th 1863

Dear Father

I have just returned to camp from Boston where I spent the fourth and fifth.  Yesterday, I went to Mr. Grimes Church and Dr. Rock read a letter that he had rec’d from his wife who is in Philadelphia [ ] and that the Rebels were sending the negroes south as fast as they advanced from our lines and that the colored people were rushing into Philadelphia and that yourself and Stephen Smith and other were doing all you could for them.  I was glad to hear that – only keep out of the hands of the rebels.

This morning as I was about to take the train for camp I saw some returned soldiers from Newbern[?] N.Y. and had just got the news that Meade had whipped the rebels and before me stood an Irishman.  I said that we had some sort of a Gen. now and that made the Irish mad and he stepped in front of me with his fist-doubled up in my face and said ain’t Mr. McLellan a good Gen. you black nigger. I don’t care if you have got the uniform on.  When he got done I was so mad that I sweat-freely and I threw my coat and went at him.  All the time there was a policeman on the opposite side watching our movements.  Just as I went at him (he was heavier than me) the policeman came and stopped me and asked what the matter was.  I told him and he marched the other fellow off and that made all the other Irish mad and I felt better.  Still I felt as though I could whip a dozen Irish. I did not care for them because I had my pistol and it was well loaded.  I’m all right for I got my mind made to shoot the first Irishman that strikes me.  They may talk but keep their paws to themselves.

We are expecting to leave here next week. The men will get their Bounty this week.  We have a full band and drum corp and a good healthy looking set of men.  I would like to see you before I go away.  The flag has not been presented yet.  If your write – direct it – to the care of

Martin Becker,

Comm. Sergeant

55 Reg. Mass Vol

I have written home twice but have received no answer from them.

Please write.

From your aff. son,




St. Helena’s Island [BCF]

July 6,1863

My Own Darling Wife,

As I wrote you last week, your long letter of June 5 th to 10th came at last, and to-day I got that of the 23d to 26th. I am so sorry you have been worrying yourself about Montgomery and my connection with him, and I hope that my later letters have put your mind at rest. . . .

When you get this, you will have been a good while without news from me, as the last mail was not allowed to go, on account of the military movements in this Department. I wrote to Father the other day that we were left here, and most of the other troops had gone to Folly Island,—at least we suppose that was their destination. There is no knowing how soon, or in what direction, we may get orders to move. It is my great desire to join the main army, and General Strong was so sorry to leave this regiment, that I think there may be a chance of his getting hold of us again.

… To-day I went on board the “Montauk,” a Monitor lying in the harbour. I met there an officer named Cushman, who took me all over the vessel, and explained everything. In port the cabins are tolerably well ventilated, though very dark; but at sea everything is closed, and in action also; so that the air in the men’s quarters becomes so foul that the lights can hardly be kept going. Forty per cent of their men are on the sick-list, and they have to send some of them home every day. Such a hideous place to live in I never saw. The officers of the navy have by no means as much confidence in the Monitors as the public at large, and say they can be of service only against other iron-clads, or wooden vessels, and brick-and-mortar work. Forts of other descriptions, such as field-works and sand-batteries, they think would get the better of them. It has been necessary to make a great many changes and improvements in them to render them fit for active service; and as this has been done by officers of the navy, they all seem very indignant that Ericsson should have all the credit. They say that, as he turned them over to the navy, they would have been useless. The officers also affirm that the Monitor class or iron-clads was invented by a New York man named Pimbey, four years before Ericsson’s was presented, and that the latter now pays him $30,000 for every Monitor he turns out. In short, they pitch into Ericsson energetically, and think he has appropriated other men’s work and inventions unsparingly. They showed us all the places where the “Montauk” was struck at Charleston, and explained how several of the vessels were disabled by one plate or bolt being forced out of place. The 11-inch gun can be fired once in 2.30 minutes, and the 15-inch not so often. This is very slow. Nevertheless, they are terrible engines, and wonderful in their strength.

I afterwards visited the “Atlanta,” or “Fingal,” the Rebel ram lately captured. She is very powerful, but roughly finished. She had four pieces; two 7-inch and two 61/2-inch rifles, marked “Tredegar Foundry.”4 They were roughly finished on the outside, but terrible-looking guns. This craft would have made great havoc in our blockading fleet, if she had got out, and it was by a piece of good fortune that we captured her. . . .

July 7th — Good morning. You will see in my letter to Mother what I said about your and her coming down here. Of course it depends entirely upon what we do. The last two weeks would have been delightful for you.

I have got you some of the moss, and send you as much as I can in a large envelope, — enough to hang over a small picture.

On Sunday, I rode six miles to the Episcopal church, but it was closed, the clergyman being ill, and I went to the Baptist. . . .

The gentleness and respect for civilized usages in this war have been wonderful, and for that reason Montgomery’s doings seem very horrible. I am not excusing them, but merely giving another side of the picture. He is not the only man who has done so. Foster destroyed three towns in North Carolina without reason, and Blufftown, in this Department, was burnt the other day by white troops. Montgomery’s previous reputation has been such that he attracts attention. Many people here blame him for having had one of his men shot without trial. According to Regulations, it was wrong; but the court-martial in this case would have been a technicality, for the man’s guilt was unquestionable, and before he could have been tried Montgomery’s regiment would have been dissolved. He had lost seventy men by desertion, in two days. Since the execution not one has gone, but thirty or forty have secretly returned in the night. Of course such a power cannot be allowed to a Colonel, as there would be murders without number under the name of execution; and I do not believe Montgomery has heard the last of it. Nevertheless, as to the right and wrong of the matter, he only violated a clause of the Regulations, and the result is extremely beneficial. I think that a Brigadier-General should have power to approve a sentence of death given by a court; but now it has to go to the Department commander.

Colonel Montgomery has told me some fearful stories of his life in Kansas. I will send you one, in order that you may know what a life he has led for ten years past. He had captured five men who had been committing depredations, — shooting men from behind, and taking their scalps. He intended to kill them, but they begged for life so hard, that he let them go, on condition they would not come into Kansas again. Instead of keeping their word, they began their old occupation again, and having captured some of his men, killed them, and took their scalps away with them. Some time after Montgomery took the same five again. This time there was no chance for them. Their courage forsook them entirely, so that they absolutely fell to the earth with fright, and begged and prayed for their lives, and said they should go to Hell, if he killed them.

When they were being taken out to be shot, seeing him somewhat moved by their entreaties, they clung to his knees and his garments, and it required the strength of three men to drag one of them away. As the first fire three were killed, and the other two only mortally wounded; these last kept on moaning, and begging in a weak voice to be allowed to live; but the sergeant in command of the squad of executioners drew his revolver, and blew their brains out!

Scenes like this were common occurences in Kansas at that time, and I wonder that Montgomery has not become a wild beast instead of a reasonable man. He commands the respect of all his superiors, and is undoubtedly a man gifted with some great qualities. You cannot talk with him long without discovering that he is in reality a tender-hearted man. This assertion would probably amuse most people, who only know him by reputation.

Don’t think I am humbugged by Montgomery. I am not often enthusiastic, and what I say of him is not of that kind. . . .

With all the love that I have,

Your attached Husband

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July 5, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his mother, begun on the 3rd, extended on the 4th, and completed on the 6th:

July 3,1863[BCF]

Dearest Mother,

You will have been sometime without letters from me, when you receive this, as the “Arago” was not allowed to take a mail last week, I understand, because of the late movement on Charleston. Last night, I went over to tea at a plantation 4 or 5 miles from here where some of the teachers, four ladies and the same number of gentlemen live. The interesting member of the family is Miss Lottie Forten, from Philadelphia, a niece of Mr. Purvis, and a quadroon. She is quite pretty, remarkably well educated, and a very interesting woman. She is decidedly the belle here, and the officers, both of the army & navy, seem to think her society far preferable to that of the other ladies.

After tea we went to what the negroes call a praise-meeting, which was very interesting. The praying was done by an old blind fellow, who made believe, all the time, that he was reading out of a book. He was also the leader in the singing, and seemed to throw his whole soul into it. After the meeting they had a shout, which is a most extraordinary performance. They all walk & shuffle round in a ring, singing & chanting, while 3 or 4 stand in a corner and clap their hands to mark the time. At certain parts of the chorus, they all give a duck, the effect of which is very peculiar. The shuffling is what they call shouting. They some times keep it up all night, and only church members are allowed to join in it.

Their singing, when there are a great many voices, is fine, but otherwise I don’t like it at all. The women’s voices are so shrill, that I can’t listen to them with comfort.

I met Mr. Arthur Turner, a brother of Ned Turner’s, over there, and today he came to see me. He has been teaching here some time. The licentiousness among the negroes is very great, but they say that the improvement in that respect, is very encouraging. They feel no shame about it at all, and hardly understand that it is wrong. As a general thing the men seem to me to have better faces than the women.

July 4

Today there has been a great meeting for the coloured people, at the Baptist Church 6 or 7 miles from camp. I rode down there, and heard a speech from a coloured preacher of Baltimore, named Lynch, & another from Mr. [one word crossed out and illegible] which latter was very bad. It may have seemed so to me, because [two words illegible] very much. (This is private).

Mr. Lynch was very eloquent. Can you imagine anything more wonderful than a coloured-Abolitionist meeting on a South Carolina plantation? Here were collected all the freed slaves on this Island listening to the most ultra abolition speeches, that could be made; while two years ago, their masters were still here, the lords of the soil & of them. Now they all own a little themselves, go to school, to church, and work for wages. It is the most extraordinary change. Such things oblige a man to believe that God isn’t very far off.

A little black boy read the Declaration of Independence, and then, they all sang some of their hymns. The effect was grand. I would have given anything to have had you there. I thought of you all the time. The day was beautiful and the crowd was collected in the churchyard under some magnificent old oaks, covered with the long, hanging, grey moss, which grows on the trees here. The gay dresses & turbans of the women made the sight very brilliant.

Miss Forten promised to write me out the words of some of the hymns they sang, which I will send to you.

July 6

Yesterday I went to church at the same place, where the meeting was held on the 4th. The preaching was very bad, being full of “hell & damnation” but administered in such a dull way, that sleep soon overcame most of the Congregation & we counted fifty darkeys fast in arms of Murphy. After the sermon the preacher said “Those who wish to be married can come forward.” Some one then punched a stout young fellow, in white gloves, near me, and as soon as he could be roused, and made to understand that the hour was come, he walked up to the altar. A young woman, still stouter, & broader shouldered, than the bride groom, advanced from the women’s side of the church, accompanied by a friend, and they both stood by his side — so that it looked as if he were being married to both of them. However they got through it all right, as he evidently knew which was which, and they both said “Yes sir” in answer to all the preacher asked them. They were both coal black. I couldn’t find out if the bride had been snoring, during the sermon, as well as the groom. At the church they sing our hymns, and make a sad mess of them, but they do justice to their own at their praise meetings.

9 P.M.

We have just had Miss Forten & two other ladies to tea, and entertained them afterwards with some singing from the men. It made us all think of those latter evenings at Readville, which were so pleasant. If there were any certainty of our being permanently here you & Annie (if Father or some other protector would accompany you) could come down & spend a month without the least difficulty. You would enjoy it immensely. There is enough here to interest you for months.

As you may suppose, I was bitterly disappointed at being left behind, but nothing has been done at Charleston yet, and we may still have a chance.

Today I went on board the Monitor “Montauk” & the Rebel ram “Fingal.” The latter is very strong and very powerfully armed—but the work is rough, and looks as if they wanted money & workmen to finish it properly.

We don’t know with any certainty, what is going on in the North, but can’t believe Lee will get far into Pennsylvania. I suppose it is not sure that he will not get Washington this time. My feeling towards the Government is one of pity — as if they were a poor weak creature goaded & tormented on every side, not knowing which way to turn.

No matter if the Rebels get to New York, I shall never lose my faith in our ultimate success. We are not yet ready for peace — and want a good deal of purging still. I got a letter from Annie this afternoon, but no others. What lively times they have been having at Portland. I wrote to General Strong this afternoon, & expressed my wish to be in his Brigade. Though I like Montgomery, I want to get my men alongside of white troops, and into a good fight if there is to be one. The General sent me word, before he went away, that he was very much disappointed at being ordered to leave us so I thought it well to put it into his head, to try to get us back.

Working independently, the coloured troops come only under the eyes of their own officers and to have their worth properly acknowledged, they should be with other troops in action. It is an incentive to them too to do their best. There is some rumour tonight of our being ordered to James Island, and put under Genl Terry’s command. I should be satisfied with that.

I shall write to Effie & Susie tomorrow if nothing happens to prevent it. Please tell them, so, if they don’t hear from me, for we may have to leave this, at any moment. Indeed I have been expecting it, every day.

Goodnight darling Mother. Give my love to Father & the girls. I hope you are all well. I had a note from Cousin John today enclosing an ivy leaf from the wall at Hugomount, Waterloo.”

If the Rebels get near New York, do go to Massachusetts. I shall be so anxious, if you don’t. Lenox would be a safe place.

Your ever loving son

Will you send this to Annie?

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July 4, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his father:

St. Helena I.[BCF]

July 4,1863

Dear Father,

All the troops, excepting the coloured Regiments, are ordered to Folly Island. There will be a grand attack on Charleston, I suppose. I feel very much disappointed at being left behind, especially after Montgomery was promised by Genl Gilmore that we should have our share in it. I write you this lest you should see mention of the movement in the papers, & think we were in it.

I have not time to write to Annie, as the mail goes directly. Please send her this, or write to her.

Your loving Son

P.s. I sent you a box with some clothes & my old sword. Enclosed is receipt.

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July 3, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his friend and former fellow office from the 2nd Massachusetts, Charles Fessneden Morse. On this day, Morse was fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg with the 2nd Massachusetts. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on the day following. Today was the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

St. Helena’s Island, S. C. [BCF]

July 3,1863

My dear Charley,

Before I proceed to any other subject, let me ask you, if I ever sent you the $5.00 which you paid Brangle for me, & if you know of any other debts of mine in the Second. I don’t remember when I last wrote to you, but think it was just after I took dinner at your Father’s.

Since then I have seen your letters to your Brother describing the Chancellorsville fights, which I read with a great deal of interest.  Harry and I couldn’t help feeling blue, when we heard the 2d was at work again, and we away from our old posts. I was very glad to hear that you liked Slocum so much, & had such confidence in him. It will, no doubt, be one of the Division or Corps Generals who will be the great man of the war.

I wish I knew where you were now; we have had no late news from the North, and what we have had, has served mostly to confuse my mind very decidedly, as to the whereabouts of the two armies.

So the 1st Mass. Cavalry has had a regular shindy at last. I was glad to hear that Henry Hig’s wounds were not dangerous.  What a bloody-looking boy he must be, with a scar across his face.

Remember me to Curtis, if you see or write to him.

You may have heard that the passage of the 54th Mass through Boston was a great success. I never saw such a heavy turn-out there before. We came down to Hilton Head in a very nice Steamer, though a slow one, for we were six days en route.

We landed at Beaufort, and went into camp there. Hearing that Col. Montgomery the Kansas man, was going farther South, I asked permission to join him. So we remained only two days at Beaufort, and then sailed for St. Simon’s Island, on the coast of Georgia. The day after we arrived there, Montgomery started us off, up the Altamaha River, and after capturing a little schooner full of cotton & burning the town of Darien, we returned to the Island, having been absent two days.

The destruction of Darien disgusted me very much, and as soon as Montgomery told me he was going to burn it, I said I didn’t want to have anything to do with [it] and he was glad to take the responsibility. It was done by Genl Huntet’s order, however. We remained at St. Simon’s for about ten days after this.

I had a large plantation to myself & lived very comfortably in the former owner’s house—the regt being encamped in an adjacent field.

The island is very beautiful, and [is] traversed in all directions by excellent roads. We had splendid rides every day & explored the place from one end to the other. It has been uninhabited for so long, that it is completely full of birds of all kinds, and on the neighbouring Islands, there is good deer-shooting. There were a great many fine plantations & country seats there, and the people must have had a very jolly time. We found the records of a Yacht Race Club — and other signs of fun. Fanny Kemble’s husband, Pierce Butler, has a very large place, six or seven miles long, there, and another near Darien. We left St. Simon’s on the 25th & ret’d here by order of General Gillmore.

Montgomery is a strange sort of man. At first sight one would think him a parson or a school-master. He is a very quiet gentlemanlike sort of person — very careful to speak grammatically & not in the least like a Western man. He is religious, & never drinks, smokes, chews or swears. He shoots his men with perfect looseness, for a slight disobedience of orders, but is very kind & indulgent to those who behave themselves properly. The other night on board the steamer, he shot at and wounded a man for talking after taps, when he had twice ordered him to be quiet. He told me that he had intended to kill him & throw him overboard, & was much astonished at having missed his aim.

Last Sunday he caught a deserter — and had him executed without trial by Court Martial, or referring the case to any one (Strange to say the General has not taken any notice of it). Montgomery says he doesn’t like the red-tape way of doing things.

He is a very attractive man, and it is very interesting to sit & hear him relate his experiences.

Everything here indicates that there is to be another attack on Charleston. I trust we shall have a share in it — and indeed, we have been given to understand, that we should go with the army, wherever it went.

I want to hear from you, very much, Charley. Tell me as much as you can of your movements since you left Stafford C. H. this last time — and how the old regt is. I have been expecting to hear of your promotion. Good-bye, my dear fellow, for the present. I often long to be with you fellows. When you & Harry & I bunked together, from Sharpsburg to Fairfax, we hardly expected to be so far separated as we are now. I wonder where the deuce you are.

Give my love to Tom R, Jim Francis, Brown, the Foxes & Mudge.

Always your affectionate friend,

Robert G. Shaw

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July 1, 1863

Two letters from Shaw, to his father and to his wife’s sister Clem. Notably: The Battle of Gettysburg began today.

St. Helena Island S.C.[BCF]

July 1, 1863

Dear Father,

In my last to Mother, I mentioned receipt of all your letters, and yesterday, your other two of the 22d ulto. came to hand, having gone first to Beaufort. The two boxes which, I heard, were at Hilton Head, did come in the “Arago” but are still enroute, on board of some brig. A box of Uncle George’s containing a beautiful English sword came all right.

Do you ever write to Dr. Bowditch? If so, I wish, you would mention to him that Lieutenant Reid (whom he recommended) is an excellent officer.

Do you know [four words crossed out and illegible] very well? He doesn’t strike me as being a very straightforward man.

You may have perhaps heard that the coloured troops are to receive $10 instead [of] $13 per mo. It is not yet decided that this regt comes under the order. If it does I shall refuse to allow them to be paid until I hear from Gov. Andrew. The regt ought, in that case, to be mustered out of service, as they were enlisted on the understanding that they were to be on the same footing as other Mass. Vols.

Another plan is to arm the negroes with pikes. I shall escape that, but Montgomery & Higginson, I am afraid, will have to come to it, unless the plan is given up. Of course, it will be the ruin of all spirit & courage in their men. Everyone who has been in any of our battles should know that Pikes against Minie balls is not fair play—especially in the hands of negroes whose great pride lies in being a soldier like white men. One of Col. Montgomery’s remarks is that it is folly to suppose that a race, which has been in bondage for 200 years can be as brave as freemen, and that all our energies must be devoted to making the most of them.

You will see from my letter to Mother that there is a good deal of exaggeration in the stories of Montgomery’s experience in Kansas. At any rate he says so himself.

Whom did you give those last letters (22 June) to? They had no post-mark & were sent to Beaufort.

Love to all,

Your most loving son

St. Helena’s Island, S.C. [BCF]

July 1,1863

My dear Clem.,

Yours of the 23 d reached me day before yesterday, and I read it with a great deal of pleasure. I anticipated your and Annie’s indignation at the vandal policy of Hunter. (Please always remember that Hunter began it). . . .

General Gillmore and General Strong (the latter our immediate commander) are both excellent men, I should think. The former I have not seen, but judge from what I hear.

There is a late-order from Washington, cutting down the pay of coloured troops from $13 to $10 per month. They have not yet decided here whether we come under the order or not. If we do, I shall refuse to have the regiment paid off, until I hear from Governor Andrew.

Another bit of insanity is a proposition to arm the negroes with pikes instead of muskets. They might as well go back eighteen centuries as three, and give us bows and arrows. General Strong says the regiment shall retain their rifles; but Montgomery and Higginson are in a great stew about it; and, indeed, such an act would take all the spirit and pluck out of their men, and show them that the government didn’t consider them fit to be trusted with fire-arms; they would be ridiculed by the white soldiers, and made to feel their inferiority in every respect. The folly of some of our leaders is wonder-full! I can’t imagine who started the idea. I hope the gentleman has a book of drill for the pike all ready.

There is some movement on foot in this Department. We do not know exactly what will be done yet. I don’t believe Charleston will be taken without some hard knocks.

Give my best love and a kiss to the mamma from me. I imagine you will all soon be at Lenox again, among the cool mountains. I always think of Lenox as in a haze, for during my visits there I was in a haze myself.

Always, dear Clem., most affectionately,

your Brother

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June 28, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his mother:

St. Helena’s Island, S.C.[BCF]

June 28 1863

Dearest Mother,

Your note of the 20th came to me on board the “Benj. DeFord” just after I had sent my last ashore—also letters from Father of the 10, 13, 15, 18, 19 Inst. & others from Annie, Effie & Harry. Some of Annie’s have been lost, however.

We did not land at Hilton Head but were ordered to this Island that same afternoon. We landed and bivouacked for the night—and since then have been engaged in transporting our stores by hand from the landing, more than a mile.

Our whole experience, so far, has been in loading 8c discharging vessels.

There is nothing said about future plans. General Strong tells me that Admiral Foote’s illness will interfere materially with them. I hope and pray that we may go to Charleston. Strong, who was one of Butler’s staff officers, is very desirous to have the negro troops take their part in whatever is done.

Montgomery did a characteristic thing this morning. His men being near their homes have deserted rapidly since we returned from St. Simon’s. He sent word by their wives & others to the deserters that those who returned of their own free will should be pardoned — that those, whom he caught, he would shoot. This morning one of my sergeants captured one. At 8 o’cl. Col. Montgomery called him up & said: “Is there any reason why you should not be shot?” “No, Sir.” “Then, be ready to die at 9:30.” At 9:15 the man sent to ask permission to see the Colonel, but it was refused, and at 9:30 he was taken out and shot. There was no Court-Martial — and the case was not referred to a superior officer. Montgomery, who just told me the story, in his low voice, but with an occasional glare in his eye (which by the bye, is very extraordinary) thinks that this prompt action was the only way to stop desertion, and it only remains to be seen whether he will be pulled up for it. I wish you could see him. You would think at first sight that he was a school-master or parson. The only thing that shows the man, is that very queer roll or glare in his eye — and a contraction of the eyebrows every now & then, which gives him rather a fierce expression. He says he never had a fight until he went to Kansas, and was a very harmless creature formerly, though never a non-resistant.

June 29 — To continue the subject of Col. Montgomery, I went over last evening, after writing the above, & sat two hours with him. He gave me his whole history, which interested me very much. I wish I could tell you all he said of his life during the last ten years. He has been in such a state of excitement all that time that he says it seems as if the whole were compressed into a few days — and he could hardly help crying when he talked of the state of utter desperation & hopelessness in which they began their fight against the Border Ruffians, and compared it with present times which seem to him bright & cheerful. He believes that nothing happens by chance & is full of faith in Providence. His account of the abject manner in which he had seen some Missourians whom he had taken prisoners, beg for their lives was very interesting. He says that without exception, under such circumstances, their manhood forsook them completely —& he compared their conduct with that of the negro, who was shot yesterday, and who never flinched from it. I said above that M. looked like a schoolmaster, & he says he did teach school in Kentucky for many years, and learnt more about managing men there, than at any other time.

He strikes me as being a very simple-minded man — and seems to be pleased at any little attention — perhaps because he has been so much abused. You will see that he is very attractive to me, and indeed I have taken a great fancy to him.

Evening —

I have just got your letter of the 21 Inst. & Father’s of 23d — his other two written after receipt of mine from St. Simon’s have not yet come to hand. What you say of Montgomery’s wife amused me very much, after hearing his account of it last evening. He said his wife saw an article in the paper stating what you say, and that all the punishment he ever wishes the writer to receive, is to come within reach of her broom-stick. Then he laughed very loud & long. Besides this, he assured me that no property of his was ever touched by a Border-Ruffian, being protected by his pro-slavery neighbours, whom he held responsible for it. He also said “To give the Devil his due” that he never, during his whole experience in Kansas heard of a well-authenticated case of a Border Ruffian having offered violence to a white woman, in any way — and he thinks that courtesy towards women is characteristic of the Southerners, good & bad.  His wife is the daughter of a Kentucky Slave-holder.

I see by the papers, what is thought of the destruction of Darien, and it provokes me to have it laid on Montgomery’s shoulders, when he acted under orders from Hunter. I, myself, saw Hunter’s letters referring to it. I am sorry if it is going to harm the negro troops, but I think myself it will soon be forgotten.

The two boxes Father sent arrived tonight. Mr. Pierce has been up here today. I hope Father wrote to Gov. Andrew, after receiving my late letters, about Darien, & told him that Hunter, only, was to blame. I was so sorry & provoked at getting no word from Annie tonight, that I didn’t know what to do. I have only heard from her 3 times & the latest date is the 18th. After the number of letters I have written her, I thought it was pretty “steep.”

Uncle George has sent me an English sword, & a flask, knife, fork, spoon &c. They have not yet come.

My warmest love to Father & the girls.

Always dearest Mother,

your loving son

p.s. I suppose Annie is with you by this time. If so give my love to her

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