Shaw’s Sword

Robert G. Shaw, 1861 (LOC)

Yesterday, I shared a cool artifact from the Massachusetts Historical Society‘s collection, which Kris White and I had the chance to explore as part of a project we’re working on for the American Battlefield Trust. I wanted to pass along another eye-popper for us: the sword of Col. Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts.

Take a look:

The sword is part of a display about the 54th Massachusetts, a unit of African Americans raised in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation. “This I cannot but regard as perhaps the most important corps to be organized during the whole war,” Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew said.

The display features a book of carte de visites containing pictures of members of the regiment and a portrait of Sgt. William Carney, the first black man to earn the Medal of Honor, which he did at Fort Wagner on Morris Island outside Charleston. (Learn more about Carney’s story in this video from the American Battlefield Trust.)

Another item on display is a watercolor of Fort Wagner, sketched after the Federals finally captured it. An enlarged version of that watercolor hangs on the wall behind the sketch.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is undoubtedly Shaw’s sword. Shaw’s uncle, George Russell, gave him the sword shortly before assault on Fort Wagner. Of English design and manufacture, the sword has a shark-skin grip on its handle. The sword bears Shaw’s initials, “R.G.S.,” and a serial number, which is how authorities were able to confirm its identity. The sword was stolen from Shaw’s body after he was killed in the assault, and it was returned to his family in 1865. The sword then faded from history again until a descendent of Shaw’s sister found it and donated it in 2017 to the MHS.

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