Robert Gould Shaw's Last Fourth of July
Col. Robert Gould Shaw attended his final Fourth of July celebration exactly two weeks before leading the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in its charge at Battery Wagner. This letter to his mother speaks to the radical change that had taken place throughout the nation since the start of the war and the sense of hope and optimism that Shaw embraced for its future.
July 4, 1863
Today there has been a great meeting for the coloured people, at the Baptist Church 6 or 7 miles from camp. I rode down there, and heard a speech from a coloured preacher of Baltimore, named Lynch & another from Mr. [Edward L. Pierce], which latter was very bad.
Mr. Lynch was very eloquent. Can you imagine anything more wonderful than a coloured-Abolitionist meeting on a South Carolina plantation? Here were collected all the freed slaves on this Island listening to the most ultra abolition speeches, that could be made; while two years ago, their masters were still here, the lords of the soil & of them. Now they all own a little themselves, go to school, to church, and work for wages. It is the most extraordinary change. Such things oblige a man to believe that God isn’t very off.
A little black boy read the Declaration of Independence, and then, they all sang some of their hymns. The effect was grand. I would have given anything to have had you there. I thought of you all the time. The day was beautiful and the crowd was collected in the churchyard under some magnificent old oaks, covered with the long, hanging, grey moss, which grows on the trees here. The gay dresses & turbans of the women made the sight very brilliant.
Miss [Charlotte] Forten promised to write me out the words of some of the hymns they sang, which I will send to you.
Forten followed through with her promise and mailed the hymns to Shaw’s mother a few weeks after his death, just outside Battery Wagner, on July 18, 1863.
Wishing all of you a safe and happy Fourth of July.
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