Before Glory: Robert Gould Shaw and His Experiences in Maryland with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry

There is no other Union officer I respect more than that of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Most Civil War buffs are aware of the fact that he had fought at Antietam and eventually became Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, but what they don’t realized is how much time he spent in our area. The book entitled “Blue Eyed Child of Fortune” serves as a wonderful tool that looks into his life during the Civil War. The book contains most of the wartime letters that he wrote. Within those letters, a lot was written about Frederick, Harper’s Ferry, and Maryland Heights just to name a few. Another valuable resource is “The Record of the Second Massachusetts Infantry” by Alonzo H. Quint that was published in 1867.

I don’t want to write an autobiography of his life, but rather focus on some of his experiences as they pertain to the area, specifically during the Maryland Campaign. After serving as a private in the 7th New York Militia, Shaw, after writing a letter for recommendation, received his commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry on May 28th, 1861. By July 8th, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.

On July 13th, Lieutenant Shaw arrived at Martinsburg, (West) Virginia. But before marching to Martinsburg, Shaw arrived by rail in Hagerstown. Shaw’s initial thought of Hagerstown was that it seemed very loyal to the Union. He did guard duty in the city. The next day Shaw’s regiment marched to Williamsport, and encamped near the Potomac River, where they would march to Martinsburg the next day. Shaw wrote that the experiences of the officers were good, but the heavy accouterments that the enlistees wore bogged them down, and many of the items had to be given to the baggage wagons. From Martinsburg, Shaw’s men would march to Charlestown, encamping at Bunker Hill.

By July 19th, Shaw and the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry took possession of Harper’s Ferry. Shaw was amazed by the beauty of Harper’s Ferry. Their tents were pitched by the trees near the house of the Superintendent of the Armory. The next day, Shaw went on a foraging expedition. The foraging party split up foraging for food and horses. While at Harper’s Ferry Shaw did a bit of site seeing and was able to see the engine house where John Brown was held up and toured the town.

By July 31st, Shaw was on the march into Washington County and to Maryland Heights, where he would encamp for a couple of weeks. Shaw was taken with the natural beauty Maryland Heights presented to the eye. Toward the end of the month, the 2nd Massachusetts would pack up their things and begin marching to Darnestown, where they would encamp to the middle of October.

By October 22nd, Shaw was encamped at Conrad’s Ferry. On November 5th, the 2nd Massachusetts was encamped at Muddy Branch where rumors spread that winter quarters was to be made either at Frederick or Baltimore. While at Muddy Branch, Shaw commented that his unit was located at the worst spot in a hollow and the weather had been rainy.

On November 15th, Shaw wrote home that the men were buying up clothing from a sutler as well as receiving mittens from home to keep warm. By November 20th, Shaw wrote home about their new campsite at Seneca. He talked about sitting in his tent with his friends around a fireplace. The men were also preparing for Thanksgiving, where each company would receive thirty turkeys or geese. During his time in the area Shaw had adapted well to army life, consisting of marching, camping, drilling, foul weather, and of course the sicknesses that ran through the camps.

By December 1st, Shaw was stationed at Camp Hicks just outside of Frederick. He mentioned that the march from Seneca to Frederick was a hard one. The roads had hardened from the early winter temperatures. Upon arrival, the weather had changed and for five days, Shaw and his men experienced an Indian Summer. The monotony of camp life was the same, and again drill and guard duty occupied Shaw’s time. For a change of pace, he even headed toward New Market to stop the running of liquor. By Christmas, Shaw was on guard duty at Monocacy Junction, hoping to get a glimpse of Old Saint Nick. Shaw speculated that Santa Clause would most likely skip over him since he was wearing his stockings, rather than leaving them for Santa to fill. While encamped at Camp Hicks, Shaw’s family would occasionally visit him.

Shaw would eventually encamp in Frederick City, which he enjoyed very much. He had his tintype taken and enjoyed the practices of the different life styles compared to what he was used to in Massachusetts. Shaw became acquainted with several young ladies escorting a few of them to church and social events. Shaw stated in his February 16th, letter that “Frederick is quite a pleasant little city.” At this time he was still awaiting orders to rejoin his unit that was encamped at Camp Hicks. He would receive those orders in late February and begin his march into the Shenandoah Valley.

After arriving in Washington with Major R. Morris Copeland in mid May, Shaw was among a few fellow officers talking about the creation of a black regiment, but the plan was rejected and Shaw took advantage of the leave from his regiment, traveling to his home in Massachusetts. Twenty-four hours after his return from home, Shaw was again back in the army life.

By May 27th, Shaw wrote to his father about his experiences as he was encamped at Williamsport. Shortly after his return to Virginia, Shaw was in charge of picket duty just outside of Winchester. His whole division had left Strasburg and retreated northward toward Winchester. His unit, the 2nd Massachusetts had covered their retreat. While on picket duty his outpost was fired upon by Confederate troops all through the night. As the Union troops fell back, Shaw was hit by a bullet, but to his amazing fortune it was stopped by his watch, leaving no injury. The reality of war and the sacrifices that had to be made became a harsh reality as it stared at Shaw face to face. Shaw was able to forget about the war while encamped at Williamsport, however by mid June he was back in Virginia, and would not return to Maryland until Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to launch his invasion of Maryland.

A month prior to the Maryland Campaign, Lieutenant Shaw was promoted to Captain of Company F, 2nd Massachusetts on August 10th, 1862. As Shaw and his unit encamped at Manassas Junction on August 29th, he wrote a letter to his father. Captain Shaw wrote “We have been drenched with rain and scorched by the sun, have slept on the ground without blankets and have lived on principally green apples and corn. Sometimes really starving. We have not seen our wagons since we have left Culpepper Court House and for that reason have been short of rations.”

The Union Army was being reorganized by General George McClellan, as orders came down through the chain of command. The 2nd Massachusetts was part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division of the 12th Corps under the command of General Joseph K. F. Mansfield. Shaw and the 2nd Massachusetts passed over the bridge at Georgetown on September 4th and encamped a mile from Tenallytown. The next day they marched to a small stream near Rockville where they encamped for the night. Shaw would pass by the villages of Middlebrook, Damascus, and Ijamsville, fording the Monocacy River by the September 13th, encamping just outside of Frederick.

During the morning of September 14th, the Battle of South Mountain would erupt while Shaw and his company were entering Frederick. It was a slow task getting through the streets of Frederick, the city that Shaw had written about during his winter stay. According to Alonzo Quint who wrote the regimental history of the 2nd Massachusetts, published in 1867: “Division after division went through the town, with endless batteries and long trains. There were long halts in tiresome places.”

Soon Shaw would march through the Catoctin Mountains, where the beautiful, and rich, fertile agricultural fields surrounding Middletown lay. The sounds of the battle along the South Mountain ridge were heard as the Massachusetts soldiers neared Middletown. Just before sundown, the men were able to cook some coffee when orders came. The men were to march past Middletown to their left through “by roads and no roads.” The men were ordered to march toward South Mountain, through fields during the darkness, taking off their shoes and stockings, but managing to keep up a steady pace. Muzzle flashes were seen in the distance as well as the “puffs of smoke.” Around 10:00 pm the flashes ceased. Finally arriving at Bolivar, the men were able to bivouac on the along the old Sharpsburg Road near the slope of South Mountain.

At 3:00 am on the 15th, Shaw and his men were up and ready to march toward Sharpsburg. Shaw and his troops resumed their march along the National Road, passing through Turner’s Gap to Boonsboro, where they saw General George McClellan and began to cheer. The column moved over to allow the general and his staff to ride by. After reaching Boonsboro, the 2nd Massachusetts made a left turn and bivouacked a few miles south of town.

The next day, orders came; the men were to go into battle. Arriving near Sharpsburg, the 2nd Massachusetts halted under the crest of a hill where thousands of soldiers were seen in the distance. But there would be no battle for the 2nd Massachusetts or Shaw that day. By mid morning, orders came to cross the Little Antietam Creek by Keedysville and bivouac. While waiting for more orders to come, Shaw walked over to the camp of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry and spent the evening with them. Shaw was very fond of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Sadly, unknown to him at the time, the bloodiest single day of the war would be fought as Shaw awoke early in the morning of the next day to the sound of artillery. The Battle of Antietam had begun.

As soon as Shaw was awoken, he said “We were moved forward immediately, and went into action in about fifteen minutes.” As the Battle of Antietam unfolded, Shaw and the 2nd Massachusetts was placed on the right of General Gordon’s Brigade. Shaw led his company through a small orchard through a cornfield, and then into a huge open field where a large group of Confederate dead and wounded lay. Soon word spread that General Mansfield was mortally wounded. As the brigade halted in the open field, Shaw talked to a few Confederate soldiers when he saw Sumner’s Corps pass by to his right. After making another advance, Gordon’s Brigade fell back through the woods in which Hooker had taken earlier that morning. As Shaw fell back a ball struck him in the neck. Lucky for Shaw the ball did not break the skin and Shaw had eluded death once again.

After the Battle of Antietam, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army moved to Shepherdstown where another battle would be fought, but the men of the 2nd Massachusetts would stay camped on the Antietam battlefield. On September 19th, the Massachusetts men would retire from Antietam and march directly to Brownsville, encamping there for the night. The next day, they would march to Maryland Heights and by the 21st, they would again take up a line of march to Pleasant Valley, but moving back to Maryland Heights to Unsell’s field by the 22nd.

While making their camp on Maryland Heights for the second time, the men noticed that their old camp from the year before in August did not look the same. The land had been stripped of trees and the paths to the spring to the Potomac River were bald and shelterless. The men were in need of clothing and supplies. The regimental history of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry states: “After the battle, our wagons were still going down to Sandy Hook Station for the clothing which did not come.”

Shaw wrote on September 21st from Maryland Heights that his company began pitching tents after six weeks of bivouacking. Upon looking over at Harper’s Ferry, Shaw recalled in a letter to his mother: “This position on Maryland Heights seems almost impregnable from any side. Mile’s surrender is incomprehensible; you know he left this, and crossed over to Harper’s Ferry, leaving the bridge standing. Harper’s Ferry can be battered to pieces from all four sides.” Shaw also hoped that this encampment would last a while in order for his company to recuperate from the hard season of campaigning. A small alarm was sounded in October as Confederate General JEB Stuart conducted his second ride around McClellan, but Shaw was never asked to have his company ready.

Shaw soon learned about Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” and said that it should have been done a long time ago rather than following the Battle of Antietam.
When McClellan was relieved of command, Shaw questioned the reasoning behind General Ambrose Burnside’s appointment to command the Army of the Potomac. He asked what special merit he had done to gain such a position.

As Burnside’s army moved further into Virginia, Shaw’s command would stay behind. Shaw would relocate with his company to Sharpsburg. India rubber blankets arrived for the men and pickets were thrown out daily. While at Sharpsburg, Shaw made his way to Hagerstown a few times. While in camp, he enjoyed playing games such as horse racing, to which he lost miserably.

By the middle of December, Shaw’s company was on the move encamping at Fairfax Station in Virginia. The weather also changed for the worse. Rain, snow and cold to the point that the roads hardened so much that it helped out the wagons rate of travel. Shaw and his men bivouacked near a large fire underneath the stars. All they had were their shelter tents, and Shaw, himself, even mentioned that he and another man shared six blankets in order to keep warm.

Shaw made mention of life in his shelter. He was lucky enough to have an India rubber shelter half, and taking their gum blankets and pinning them together at the ends kept the wind from blowing the smoke from their campfire into their shelter and it made life a little more comfortable. They would eat their meals and have a smoke and then bed down for the night listening to the men in camp singing or talking about what they will do after the war is over.

After spending the holidays at Fairfax Station, Shaw arrived in Washington on January 23rd. By February 4th, Shaw was encamped at Stafford Court House in Virginia. That day, his father paid him a visit to propose to him what Massachusetts Governor Andrew had offered. The offer was a position for colonelcy in a new regiment that was to be raised consisting of free African Americans and former slaves from the south, designated as the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment. Shaw flat out refused and then changed his mind while writing a letter to his soon to be wife, Annie. He then wrote a letter to his father, the last letter Shaw would right before arriving in Boston on February 15th.

On February 25th, Shaw reported to Camp Readville to take on his new assignment. By May 2, 1863, Shaw married his love Annie Kneeland Haggerty in New York. On May 18th, Shaw received a letter from Governor Andrew from the War Department to make requisitions for the transportation to their new assignment in the South. On July 18, 1863, during the assault on Battery Wagner, Shaw fell dead leading the 54th Massachusetts.

Photograph: LOC Collection

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