One of America's Great Swords Found

Robert Gould Shaw’s sword, whereabouts unknown since his death at the Assault on Fort Wagner, is among Civil War items recently donated to the MHS.

Shaw swordThe Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) announced the acquisition of a significant collection of Shaw and Minturn family papers, photographs, art, and artifacts, including 13 letters written by Robert Gould Shaw of the 2nd and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments, the 54th being the first African American regiment raised in the North during the Civil War. The most remarkable item in the collection is the officer’s sword carried by Shaw during the Assault on Fort Wagner where he was killed. Stolen from his body that night, the sword was recovered in 1865 and returned to Shaw’s parents. It then went to his sister Susanna (Shaw) Minturn; three of her great-grandchildren generously donated it to the MHS.

"To have located "the holy grail of Civil War swords" is a remarkable discovery," commented MHS President Dennis Fiori. “Through an amazing research effort, our curator and staff were able to put together a detailed timeline to authenticate the sword. It will be displayed with other Civil War items from our collections for a limited time this summer so that experts and visitors alike can finally see a piece of history that has been searched for since July 1863.”

On July 18, 1863, Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment led the assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War. Although the 54th was defeated in the battle and almost a third of the regiment was killed—including Shaw himself—or wounded, the battle was seen as a turning point in the war: it proved that African Americans’ bravery and dedication to country equaled that of the nation’s most celebrated heroes. The experience of Shaw and his regiment was memorialized in the critically acclaimed 1989 movie Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman, which was based on Luis F. Emilio’s book, A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

Shaw sword - RGS initialsIn a detective story filled with plot twists and "ah-ha" moments, MHS staff were able to piece together a detailed chronology of events and trace the sword back to its roots. Following Shaw’s April 17, 1863 commission to colonel of the 54th Regiment, George R. Russell, his uncle, ordered an officer's sword from master English swordsmith Henry Wilkinson for Shaw. On May 11, 1863, the blade was proofed by Wilkinson in London. Sword number 12506, a regulation infantry sword, was etched on the back side of the blade with the initials R.G.S., mounted, and sold on May 23, 1863 per Wilkinson’s records. On July 1, 1863 Shaw wrote to his father that, "A box of Uncle George’s containing a beautiful English sword came all right." Three days later, Shaw wrote to his father again, "All the troops, excepting the coloured Regiments, are ordered to Folly Island. … P.S. I sent you a box with some clothes & my old sword." The "old sword," from Shaw’s time serving in the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment, was also donated to the MHS by the Minturn family in 2013. 

Shaw was shot in the chest as he stood on the parapet of Fort Wagner, sword in hand. Overnight his body was robbed of personal effects and arms and stripped of clothing. Sources differ as to the culprits. Capt. Luis F. Emilio, commander of Company E, 54th Infantry, survived the attack at Fort Wagner and later described Shaw carrying a sword with his initials on it. He spent his life trying to locate Shaw’s belongings. 

On June 3, 1865, Gen. Charles Jackson Paine, district commander at New Berne, wrote to his family: "I heard the other day of the sword of the late Robt. G. Shaw killed at Fort Wagner, in the possession of a rebel officer about sixty miles from here. I sent out and got it; the scabbard was not with it. I am going to send it on as soon as I have an opportunity."  (Paine Ancestry. The Family of Robert Treat Paine, Signer of the Declaration ... By Sarah Cushing Paine, Charles Henry Pope: D. Clapp & Son, 1912; page 266).

The sword was retrieved near Goldsborough, North Carolina by U.S. Colored Troops under the direction of General Paine. Francis Shaw confirmed it as his son’s sword by the initials engraved upon the blade. It was returned to the Shaw family in 1865 by Capt. Solon A. Carter, who received this acknowledgment from Shaw’s father: "So far as such words may be applied to an inanimate thing it is the weapon which has done most for our colored people in this war, and it is to me likewise as well as to you a source of great satisfaction that it was recovered and restored by officers of colored troops."

Shaw's sister, Susanna, is believed to have given the sword to her young grandson, whose children discovered it in the attic as they cleared out the family home. Familiar with Emilio's description, they realized at once what they had found and generously added it to their previous gifts to the MHS.

Beginning July 18, the sword will be on display at the MHS with a selection of related materials.

MHS Civil War Collections

The MHS holds extensive collections related to the service of black soldiers and sailors in the Civil War including the personal papers of Gov. John A. Andrew, who ordered the recruitment of the 54th Regiment.  The Society’s collection also includes photographs and other material collected by the commander of Company E, 54th Infantry, Capt. Luis F. Emilio. As part of the Shaw and Minturn family papers are letters written by Shaw to his father, Francis Shaw, regarding his promotion to the colonelcy of the 54th, filling the new regiment, and movement and action seen in South Carolina shortly before his death. The collection also includes letters from Gov. John A. Andrew of Massachusetts to Shaw’s father regarding his plans to raise a separate regiment of colored men. The collection includes three paintings, one of Susanna Shaw, Robert’s sister, who married Robert B. Minturn, Jr. and a copy of a photograph of Robert G. Shaw. Related Minturn family papers include Robert Minturn’s diary and account book kept on a trading voyage to Calcutta, 1856-1857; letters to Minturn from Daniel Webster, Henry W. Longfellow, William H. Seward, Washington Irving, and Grover Cleveland; correspondence between Robert Minturn, Jr. and his family; and a letter from Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay to his daughter Maria. 

Images: Stuart C. Mowbray Photography