When the news broke that the Massachusetts Historical Society had obtained Robert Gould Shaw’s sword, I started looking up some information on the burial of his body to see what I could find out about how the sword made its way back to the family. The story of Shaw’s burial in a common trench (on this exact date in 1863, actually) with the bodies of his men is one I’ve known since high school, and I’d always assumed it was pretty well settled.
It turns out that’s not the case. In fact, there’s a longstanding controversy about why Shaw’s body ended up in a common grave, and over what the party responsible for the burial said about it at the time.
The story that appears in quite a few secondary works is that Confederate Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood ordered Shaw’s burial in a common grave as an act of intentional desecration, since Shaw died leading African American troops. In the version I first read as a high school student, Hagood dismissed questions about Shaw’s resting place with a contemptuous remark: “We buried him with his n*****s.”
In the original account on which the story is based, however, Hagood’s words are slightly different. Our eyewitness was John T. Luck, a Union surgeon captured on the day of Shaw’s burial and held at Ft. Wagner. Here’s how he told the story in an 1865 letter to the editor of Army and Navy Journal:
While being conducted into the fort I saw Colonel Shaw, of the 54th Massachusetts (colored) Regiment, lying dead upon the ground just outside the parapet. A stalwart negro had fallen near him. The rebels said the negro was a color-sergeant. The Colonel had been killed by a rifle-shot through the chest, though he had received other wounds. Brigadier-General Hagood, commanding the rebel forces, said to me: “I knew Colonel Shaw before the war, and then esteemed him. Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial. As it is, I shall bury him in the common trench, with the negroes that fell with him.” The burial party were then at work; and no doubt Colonel Shaw was buried just beyond the ditch of the fort in the trench where I saw our dead indiscriminately thrown. Two days afterwards a Rebel surgeon (Dr. Dawson, of Charleston, S. C, I think) told me that Hagood had carried out his threat.
It’s more or less along the lines of the story as I first encountered it, but with a few differences. Here Hagood orders Shaw’s burial in a common grave as a postmortem insult, but makes his remark before the burial happens, and without the racial slur that makes the other version seem especially vile.
Whether Haywood himself used the slur in reference to Shaw’s burial or not, it seems that somebody in the Confederate ranks did, or at least that many Unionists thought so, because the phrase was already appearing in Northern sources during the war. An 1864 article in Macmillan’s Magazine claims that “when the Federals asked for his body the day after the fight, ‘Colonel Shaw!’ they said, ‘we buried him below his n*****s!'” Joseph Thomas Wilson’s 1890 book The Black Phalanx attributes the phrase to a Confederate major.
In their anthology of stories of American heroes, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge quoted Hagood’s words as they appeared in Luck’s account, but also noted that the more venomous remark became a Union rallying cry:
General Haywood [sic], commanding the rebel forces, said to a Union prisoner: “I knew Colonel Shaw before the war, and then esteemed him. Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial. As it is, I shall bury him in the common trench, with the negroes that fell with him.” He little knew that he was giving the dead soldier the most honorable burial that man could have devised, for the savage words told unmistakably that Robert Shaw’s work had not been in vain. The order to bury him with his “n*****s,” which ran through the North and remained fixed in our history, showed, in a flash of light, the hideous barbarism of a system which made such things and such feelings possible. It also showed that slavery was wounded to the death, and that the brutal phrase was the angry snarl of a dying tiger. Such words rank with the action of Charles Stuart, when he had the bones of Oliver Cromwell and Robert Blake torn from their graves and flung on dunghills or fixed on Temple Bar.
Perhaps some Confederate used the phrase in response to the requests some Unionists made about Shaw’s body on his family’s behalf, and in the telling it was misattributed to Hagood himself, with Luck’s account and the quote with the slur getting mingled together.
But there was also a debate over whether Luck’s account of Hagood’s words was true. Indeed, Hagood denied that he singled out Shaw for a common burial at all, let alone that he intended it as a desecration of memory. Here is Hagood’s 1881 reply to an inquiry about Luck’s story and Shaw’s burial, as quoted in Luis F. Emilio’s 1891 history of the 54th Massachusetts (italics in original):
On the day after the night assault and while the burial parties of both sides were at work on the field, a chain of sentinels dividing them, a person was brought to me where I was engaged within the battery in repairing damages done to the work. The guard said he had been found wandering within our lines, engaged apparently in nothing except making observations. The man claimed to be a naval surgeon belonging to gunboat ‘ Pawnee ;’ and after asking him some questions about the damages sustained by that vessel a few days before in the Stono River from an encounter with a field battery on its banks, I informed him that he would be sent up to Charleston for such disposition as General Beauregard deemed proper. I do not recall the name of this person, and have not heard of him since, but he must be the Dr. Leech [Luck?] of whom you speak. I have no recollection of other conversation with him than that given above. He has, however, certainly reported me incorrectly in one particular. I never saw or heard of Colonel Shaw until his body was pointed out to me that morning, and his name and rank mentioned. … I simply give my recollection in reply to his statement. As he has confounded what he probably heard from others within the battery of their previous knowledge of Colonel Shaw, he may at the distance of time at which he spoke have had his recollection of his interview with me confounded in other respects.
You further ask if a request from General Terry for Colonel Shaw’s body was refused the day after the battle. I answer distinctly, No. At the written request of General Gillmore, I, as commander of the battery, met General Vogdes (not Terry), on a flag of truce on the 22d. Upon this flag an exchange of wounded prisoners was arranged, and Colonel Putnam’s body was asked for and delivered. Colonel Shaw’s body was not asked for then or at any other time to my knowledge. . . . No special order was ever issued by me, verbally or otherwise, in regard to the burial of Colonel Shaw or any other officer or man at Wagner. The only order was a verbal one to bury all the dead in trenches as speedily as possible, on account of the heat; and as far as I knew then, or have reason to believe now, each officer was buried where he fell, with the men who surrounded him. It thus occurred that Colonel Shaw, commanding negroes, was buried with negroes.
Emilio, who was a veteran of the 54th, didn’t buy Hagood’s attempt to evade responsibility. Even if his denial of Luck’s account was valid, the fact that someone pointed out Shaw’s body, Emilio argued, “should have secured [Shaw] a fitting sepulture, or the tender of his body to his friends. This burial of Colonel Shaw, premeditated and exceptional, was without question intended as an ignominy.”
One of Emilio’s Confederate sources did admit that some of Ft. Wagner’s defenders engaged in “desecration of the dead,” despite the officers’ attempts to prevent it. Here’s an extract from a letter he received from H.W. Hendricks in 1882:
The morning following the battle [Shaw’s] body was carried through our lines; and I noticed that he was stripped of all his clothing save under-vest and drawers. This desecration of the dead we endeavored to provide against; but at that time — the incipiency of the Rebellion — our men were so frenzied that it was next to impossible to guard against it; this desecration, however, was almost exclusively participated in by the more desperate and lower class of our troops. Colonel Shaw’s body was brought in from the sally-port on the Confederate right, and conveyed across the parade-ground into the bombproof by four of our men of the burial party. Soon after, his body was carried out via the sally-port on the left river-front, and conveyed across the front of our works, and there buried. . . . His watch and chain were robbed from his body by a private in my company, by name Charles Blake. I think he had other personal property of Colonel Shaw. . . . Blake, with other members of my company, jumped our works at night after hostilities had ceased, and robbed the dead. . . . Colonel Shaw was the only officer buried with the colored troops. . . .
If Hagood did indeed order all the dead interred as quickly as possible, one wonders why some Confederates carried Shaw’s body into the fort, across the parade ground, and into the bombproof before taking it back out again. And did this happen before or after Hagood’s order to bury all the Union dead in trenches? Perhaps it wasn’t Hagood who singled out Shaw for burial alongside the other members of the 54th, but Confederate soldiers acting on their own initiative who took Shaw’s body back outside the fort and dumped it in a common grave alongside his men.
Emilio’s book also reveals how Shaw’s sword made its way back to his family. It turned up in a Virginia house during the war, and then got shipped north. Emilio also reports that a Confederate officer named A.W. Muckenfuss bought Shaw’s sash from a soldier at Ft. Wagner and later sent it to Boston. (Muckenfuss served in the 1st Battalion, South Carolina Infantry, the same unit as H.W. Hendricks.)
Between Luck’s account and Hagood’s reply, this is a classic case of two primary accounts in direct contradiction, so it’s probably impossible to establish with any certainty whether the Confederate general singled out Shaw for an ignominious burial. Today, Shaw has not one but several monuments erected to his memory: a plaque on his grandfather’s tombstone at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, another in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, and of course the magnificent memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on Boston Common.
In any case, whether Hagood or anyone else intended the burial in a common trench as a desecration, Shaw’s family took it as a point of pride. His father rebuffed attempts to have the body found and exhumed. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies,” he wrote, “among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company—what a body-guard he has!”