A sword which belonged to the commanding officer of the first all-black Civil War regiment to see action is now on display after its discovery in a Boston attic more than 150 years after his death in battle near Charleston harbor.
Col. Robert Gould Shaw was a white officer who commanded the black freedmen of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1862 and 1863. He was killed in the unit’s unsuccessful charge at Battery Wagner on Morris Island on July 18, 1863. Shaw was portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the 1989 film “Glory.”
The sword was stripped from his body following the battle, but was eventually recovered by a Confederate officer after the war and returned to Shaw’s parents. However, Massachusetts Historical Society Vice President for Collections Brenda Lawson said the sword was lost to history after that. It was not until some of the descendants of Shaw’s sister went through the attic of her granddaughter following her death and found the historic artifact.
“It was known there was a sword,” Lawson said. “But this particular generation didn’t really know they had this sword in the attic until they were cleaning it out.”
The regulation infantry officer’s sword was made in England at the request of Shaw’s father after his son’s commission as regiment commander. Col. Shaw’s initials “R.G.S.” are etched on the back of the sword, which Lawson said is how the family knew it to be genuine.
“To have located ‘the holy grail of Civil War swords’ is a remarkable discovery,” MHS President Dennis Fiori said in a statement. “Through an amazing research effort, our curator and staff were able to put together a detailed timeline to authenticate the sword.”
Lawson said the sword is symbolic, since Shaw used it to rally a regiment that many white commanders did not expect to perform in battle. “(The black soldiers) felt very close and bonded to Shaw as their leader. He, in turn, had great confidence in them,” she said. “So, when the assault happened on Fort Wagner and he raised his sword for his troops to follow him, it was in that moment that they were really together as a unit.”
According to witnesses who survived the battle, Shaw had his sword in hand as he was shot on the fort’s parapet.
The sword debuted to the public at the historical society’s exhibits in Boston on Tuesday — the 154th anniversary of the battle. The society’s collections also include letters, photographs, art and artifacts involving the 54th Massachusetts.