On this day 150 years ago, James Henry Gooding, a private in the 54th Massachusetts, wrote to the editors of the New Bedford Mercury with a eulogy of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.
Mercury, August 29, 1863
Morris Island, Aug. 16, 1863
—As stringent orders have been recently issued relative to giving information in regard to military matters here, which is a very proper course and necessary, the amount of news is rather meagre, so I will violate no “General Orders” in expressing the general feeling of the regiment in respect to our late commander, Col. Shaw qualities, as a friend, commander and hero, and, I might add, without any extravagance, a martyr—for such he has proved himself to be. Who would dare ascribe a selfish motive to a man whose position in life bade fair to be a high one, without the prestige of military fame? He seemed to have taken the position more in the light of a reformer, or one to put in practice a system of order and discipline among a people sadly deficient in these respects, not in a military sense alone, because the seed of discipline sown among us as soldiers would ripen into fruit when the time arrived to become citizens. We, as a people, would know the value of obedience and the meaning of law and order; but I am off the point. When the raising of this regiment was first mooted I doubt if there could have been found a dozen men in the North, holding as high a position and with prospects of bettering themselves by another channel, as our respected Colonel, who would have accepted the unenviable position as commander of the first colored regiment organized in the North. There was then a great doubt among skeptical persons of our raising 500 men; and doubts, too, of colored men conforming to the restraint of camp life, and predictions that the men would run away in a week after being brought to camp; with these doubts and predictions before them, men were afraid to risk their reputations and name on what too many deemed a chimera; they did not care to stand a chance of being the laughing stock and butt of cynical persons. But Col. Shaw, from the beginning, never evinced any fear of what others thought or said. He believed the work would be done, and he put his hands, his head, and heart to the task, with what results you all know. It has been conceded by many that he carried through Boston one of the best drilled regiments ever raised by the State. The discipline of the regiment was perfect; not a slavish fear, but obedience enacted by the evidence of a superior and directing mind.
Col. Shaw was not what might be expected, familiar with his men; he was cold, distant, and even austere, to a casual observer. When in the line of duty, he differed totally from what many persons would suppose he would be, as commander of a negro regiment. If there was any abolition fanaticism in him, he had a mind well balanced, so that no man in the regiment would ever presume to take advantage of that feeling in their favor, to disobey, or use insolence; but had any man a wrong done him, in Colonel Shaw he always found an impartial judge, providing the complaint was presented through the proper channels. For he was very formal in all his proceedings, and would enforce obedience merely by his tones which were not harsh, but soft and firm. The last day with us, or I may say the ending of it, as we lay flat on the ground before the assault, his manner was more unbending than I had ever noticed before in the presence of his men; he sat on the ground, and was talking to the men very familiarly and kindly; he told them how the eyes of thousands would look upon the night’s work they were about to enter on; and said he, “Now boys I want you to be MEN!” He would walk along the entire line and speak words of cheer to his men. We could see that he was a man who had counted the cost of the undertaking before him, for his words were spoken so ominously, his lips were compressed, and now and then there was visible a slight twitching of the corners of his mouth, like one bent on accomplishing or dying. One poor fellow, struck no doubt by the Colonel’s determined bearing, exclaimed as he was passing him, “Colonel, I will stay by you till I die,” and he kept his word; he has never been seen since. For one so young, Col. Shaw showed a well-trained mind, and an ability of governing men not possessed by many older and more experienced men. In him, the regiment has lost one of its best and most devoted friends. Requiescat in pace.
J. H. G.