Col. Robert G. Shaw dying at the Battle of Fort Wagner

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Col. Robert G. Shaw dying at the Battle of Fort Wagner
1940
Martyl (Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf)
b. 1918
Gouache on masonite board
28.81 x 19.75 in.
DuSable Museum of African American History, gift of Martyl Schweig Langsdorf to Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs
1984.21.2

In this study for a mural, a wave of African American soldiers in blue coats charge toward Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Look at the setting. Do you think that the Union troops won? The sky is red, the grass is dry and barren, and the hills are almost black. On the left, an African American soldier raises his sword and leads men in a charge toward the fort. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is seen dying in the lower right corner of the image.

The men belong to the Union’s 54th Massachusetts, United States Colored Troops. This regiment fought at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, to gain access to Morris Island, a strategic point needed by the Union to control the port of Charleston, South Carolina.

The 54th Massachusetts lost the battle, but their bravery in this assault won them fame throughout the Union. Up to this point, black troops had been included in only a few battles; Fort Wagner convinced white Northerners of the capabilities of African Americans in the war effort and encouraged other African Americans to join the Union Army, giving the North a long-term advantage.

When Colonel Shaw was killed at Fort Wagner, Confederate soldiers shoved his body into a mass grave with his men, thinking to insult their enemy by burying him next to African American. Shaw’s family and friends responded to the act with enthusiasm, however, welcoming it as an honor and describing his final resting place among his men as sacred.

Questions:

1. Does the landscape in this painting look real to you? Why do you think the artist chose to paint it that way? What does this painting suggest about the experience of fighting a battle?  

2. The artist painted this image during World War II before Americans entered the fighting. By this time, African Americans had served in the American armed forces for over seventy years, but always in segregated units and under discriminatory rules. Why do you think the artist chose to paint this subject when she did?

3. The title of the painting is about the death of the 54th Massachusetts’ white colonel, Robert G. Shaw. But the artist places Shaw in the lower corner of the painting, away from the main action of the work. Why do you think she composed the painting in this way?

Further reading:
Fahs, Alice. “Picturing the Civil War 1.” Picturing U.S. History. http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/?p=885.

National Park Service. “Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment.” National Park Service, Boston African American National Historic Site. http://www.nps.gov/boaf/historyculture/shaw.htm.

Pohanka, Brian C. “Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, July 18, 1863.” America's Civil War Magazine. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/batterywagner/battery-wagner-history-articles/fortwagnerpohanka.html.


©DuSable Museum of African American History