American Portraits

Robert Gould Shaw’s Courageous Decision

In this lesson, students will explore Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s decision to take charge of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment. Students will learn why it took courage for him to make the decision, its significance to the nation and the overall war effort, as well as how they can make similar courageous decisions in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston in October 1837. He was the only son of a wealthy mercantile family who possessed radical abolitionist views. Shaw was a rebellious youth who often tested the patience of his parents and teachers. He found the worlds of college and business to be boring and longed for more. As the crisis deepened in the nation, Shaw volunteered his service part time with the 7th New York militia, a regiment made up mostly of boys from high society in New York City. After the election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of the southern states, the men in the 7th were enlisted into the regular army for a period of thirty days….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How does Robert Gould Shaw’s placing of duty above his own personal desires help us understand courage?

Virtue Defined

Courage is the capacity to overcome fear in order to do good.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will explore Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s decision to take charge of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment. Students will learn why it took courage for him to make the decision, its significance to the nation and the overall war effort, as well as how they can make similar courageous decisions in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Robert Gould Shaw’s decision to take command of the 54th Massachusetts
  • Students will understand how they can make courageous decisions
  • Students will apply their knowledge of courage to their own lives.

 

Background

Frederick Douglass wrote, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Blacks had served in the U.S. military during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, even though a 1792 federal law had forbidden them from bearing arms for the United States. Whether blacks should be allowed to join the U.S. army during the Civil War was a controversial question as President Lincoln feared that allowing them to do so would push the loyal slave states to secede.

However, by 1862, an increasingly large number of former slaves had been freed as a result of Union victories. Additionally, fewer whites were volunteering to fight in the war. These factors led Congress in July of 1862 to enact the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which freed slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army and allowed blacks to serve in the military.  A few days later, Lincoln released a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which promised freedom to former slaves who served in the U.S. army.

Military service was something abolitionists in the North had been pushing for from the beginning of the conflict. However, just how these new “colored” units would be organized and how they would perform under the duress of combat was unknown. In March of 1863, John A. Andrew, the Governor of Massachusetts, commissioned the first of these new regiments. It would be designated the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and be primarily made up of African-Americans. However, per the order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, white officers would command it. The man called upon for this task of commanding the 54th was Robert Gould Shaw.

Vocabulary

  • Emancipation Proclamation
  • Abolition
  • Seccession
  • Rudimentary
  • Monotony
  • Mustered
  • Minié ball
  • Battle of Antietam

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

Visit Their Website

Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Robert Gould Shaw? Why was it significant that he took over the command of the 54th Massachusetts?
  • What does Robert Gould Shaw’s decision to take command of the 54th say about his purpose?
  • What did Robert Gould Shaw’s decision say about his identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Shaw, Robert Gould, and Russell Duncan. Blue-eyed Child of Fortune the Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
  • Glory. TriStar Pictures, 1989. Film.

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Close