Famed Civil War Sword Again Sees Light of Day

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July 29, 2017

One of the symbols of African-American soldiers' participation in the American Civil War is back on public display, after changing hands several times in 150 years.

The sword belonged to Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a white man who was in charge of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The famed "54th Mass" was made up entirely of African-American soldiers, from both Canada and the United States. The regiment trained in the North and then followed orders into what many historians have viewed as an impossible task: taking the heavily fortified South Carolina stronghold of Fort Wagner.

The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts followed orders and stormed the fort on July 18, 1863. Leading the way on that charge was Shaw himself, wielding a gleaming English sword with his initials, RGS, on the blade. The Confederate forces held Fort Wagner that day. Shaw was one of the Union soldiers killed in the battle, and his sword was taken off him.

The whereabouts of the sword were not known until 1865. In the closing days of the war, Union Army Gen. Charles Jackson Paine got a tip that the sword was in a house in Goldsboro, N.C. Paine's men retrieved the sword, and Paine sent it to Shaw's parents, in New York.

The sword stayed in the Shaw family for generations. In 2013, two of Shaw's descendants, Robert Shaw and Mary Minturn Wood, donated Shaw's sword to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Shaw had wielded more than one sword in his time in the Union Army, and the sword that his descendants gave to the historical society was not the famous one, the one he used in the assault at Fort Wagner. As it turns out, the sword donated in 2013 was the one Shaw used at the Battle of Antietam; that sword did not have his initials on the blade.

Earlier in 2017, Shaw and Wood found another collection of swords in the attack of their parents' house. One of those turned out to be the famous Fort Wagner sword, which is now on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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