August 1863: "I came home to see Mrs Shaw according to special invitation and had a delightful talk of an hour."Joan Fink, Volunteer
Caroline Wells Healey Dall journal, 1862-1865, pages with entries for 6-8 August 1863
In her journal entries for 6 to 8 August 1863, Caroline Healey Dall, an American feminist, essayist, and reformer, writes of visiting with various members of the family of Robert Gould Shaw, late colonel of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. She describes in poignant fashion how his parents and sisters coped with the news of his death in the Battle of Fort Wagner on 18 July 1863.
Caroline Healey Dall, born on 22 June 1822 in Boston, Massachusetts, was the oldest of the eight children of Mark and Caroline Foster Healey. Dall’s father arranged for her to be educated in the classics and religion, and sent her to private school where she studied Latin, French, and Italian. Dall, who became an advocate of education for women, was an early leader in the women’s rights movement, as well as a vocal opponent of slavery. In 1844, she married Charles Henry Appleton Dall, a social worker and minister. They had two children, William Healey Dall (Willie) and Sarah Keene Healey Dall (Sadie). In 1855, Charles Dall left his family and traveled to Calcutta, India, as a missionary, where he remained until his death in 1886.
Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston on 10 October 1837 to Francis (Frank) and Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw. In 1847 the family, including Shaw’s sisters Anna, Susanna, Josephine (Effie), and Ellen (Nellie), moved to Staten Island. Robert returned to Massachusetts in 1856, acceding to his family’s wish that he attend Harvard. He left during his third year, however, and went to work for his uncle Henry P. Sturgis, a Manhattan merchant. Shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln, Shaw joined the 7th New York National Guard; of which Theodore Winthrop (also referenced in Dall’s journal) was a member. Upon the completion of his enlistment with the 7th, Shaw accepted a commission as a lieutenant in the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He served with that regiment for twenty months. During that time he was promoted to captain, and saw action at the battles of Cedar Mountain and Antietam.
In April 1863 Shaw was discharged from the 2nd to accept a commission as colonel of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first military unit consisting entirely of black enlisted men raised in the North during the Civil War. Shaw was selected for the commission by Governor John A. Andrew, and although he initially refused, he once again yielded to pressure from his parents, and accepted the commission. On 18 July 1863, Shaw and his regiment led the Union assault on Fort Wagner, on Morris Island, South Carolina. Shaw was killed during the attack, and 272 other members of the 54th were either killed, wounded, or captured. Although the attack at Fort Wagner was not a military success, it categorically answered the questions that had been previously raised concerning the ability of the black troops, as the courage and competence of the 54th unequivocally demonstrated the bravery, ability, and spirit of the black soldiers.
These journal entries were written while Dall and her children were visiting Sydney Howard and Elizabeth Neall Gay, family friends living on Staten Island. The Gays were abolitionists as were many in their West New Brighton neighborhood, including the extended family of Robert Gould Shaw. Dall writes in her journal of visiting with Effie and Nellie Shaw at which time, Effie told her of the touching letter Shaw wrote to his wife Annie on the morning of his death. In that letter, Shaw stated he “had not a wish ungratified” once he had “brought his colored troops, alongside of Stevenson’s white soldiers” (page 1). Dall also writes of her visit with Shaw’s mother Sarah. Sarah Shaw revealed to Dall that “the Lord had mercifully interposed to prevent her feeling any responsibility in regard to Rob’s decision” as the letter and telegraphs she had sent urging him to accept the commission in the 54th “failed to reach him” (page 4).
Dall compares Annie Haggerty, who married Robert Gould Shaw on 2 May 1863, to the Roman goddess Minerva, who was born without a mother having sprung fully formed from Jupiter’s head. Dall notes that Haggerty had no particular interest in the antislavery cause until she fell in love with Shaw, when she emerged as a “fully armed Minerva – new born into the cause” (page 4). Dall agrees with Shaw’s mother that Annie, despite having been married for only a few months and widowed at the age of twenty-eight, would in all likelihood never remarry. Her prophecy proved accurate--Annie Haggerty Shaw lived to the age of seventy-one, and never remarried, living a relatively reclusive life.
In 1879, Dall moved to Washington, D.C., where she became a founder of the American Social Science Foundation, an organization for assisting the underprivileged, the unemployed, and the mentally ill. She also wrote extensively, including works on various social issues of the time, transcendentalism, biography, and fiction. Dall died on 17 December 1912 at the age of ninety.
Sources for Further Reading
The featured journal entries are from the Caroline Wells Healey Dall papers. The collection contains forty five journal volumes spanning the years 1838-1911. In addition, the collection contains a vast amount of personal correspondence, including both received letters and Dall’s own letterbook copies of her sent letters. In addition to a wealth of Civil War era material, the collection also contains material on 19th-century religion, literature, and social, political, and educational reform.
Burchard, Peter. One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965.
Dall, Caroline Healey. The Selected Journals of Caroline Healey Dall, Volume 2: 1855–1866. Edited by Helen R. Deese. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2013.
Dall, Caroline Healey. Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-century Woman, Caroline Healey Dall. Edited by Helen R. Deese. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
Duncan, Russell. Where Death and Glory Meet. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Shaw, Robert Gould. Blue-eyed Child of Fortune: the Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Edited by Russell Duncan. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.