Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s sword discovered in Mass. attic

(image via NY Post)

The sword belonging to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the famed black Civil War regiment – the 54th Massachusetts, was thought to be lost to history when it was discovered in an attic earlier this year.

From NY Post:

The British-made sword carried into battle by Col. Robert Gould Shaw was stolen after he was killed during the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry’s doomed attack on Fort Wagner, SC, in 1863, a battle portrayed in the 1989 movie “Glory.”

It was found recently in the home of one of Shaw’s distant relatives and is scheduled to go on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Tuesday, the 154th anniversary of his death…

…After Shaw — who, like all officers in black units, was white — was killed, his body was stripped of clothing and belongings by Confederate soldiers.

The sword was recovered about two years later from a Confederate officer shortly after the war ended and returned to Shaw’s parents in Boston. Shaw had no children of his own, so the sword ended up with his sister, Susanna Minturn.

The sword was found in the attic of a home north of Boston by the sister’s great-grandchildren.


Boston Globe has a longer piece on the sword including a great timeline of the sword’s history.

April 1863: Shaw is commissioned colonel of the 54th Massachusetts. It’s around this time that Shaw’s uncle, George R. Russell, ordered an officer’s sword from Henry Wilkinson, a master swordsmith from England.

May 1863: Wilkinson sword number 12506 is “proofed,” according to Wilkinson’s archive records. It’s later etched and mounted, and sold to C.F. Dennett, Esq., historical records show. The Massachusetts Historical Society concluded, “Clearly this sword was ordered as soon as possible, after [Shaw] received his commission as Colonel of [the] 54th.”

June 1863: Shaw writes a letter to his mother that says his “Uncle George” has “sent me an English sword, and a flask, knife, fork, spoon.” But, he adds, “They have not yet come.”

July 1863: Shaw writes to his father: “A box of Uncle George’s containing a beautiful English sword came all right.” According to the historical society, this is Wilkinson’s sword number 12506, a regulation infantry sword with the initials R.G.S. — Robert Gould Shaw — etched on it.

July 4, 1863: Shaw wrote to his father again and said, “All the troops, excepting the coloured Regiments, are ordered to Folly Island. . . . P.S. I sent you a box with some clothes and my old sword. Enclosed is receipt.”

July 16, 1863: The 54th Massachusetts participates in the Battle of Grimball’s Landing, on James Island. Historians say Shaw likely used his sword in this battle, which was the first experience “under fire” for the regiment, according to the historical society.

July 18, 1863: The assault on Fort Wagner takes place, and Shaw is shot in the chest while standing on the parapet, “sword in hand,” the historical society said. “Overnight, his body was robbed of personal effects and arms and stripped to underwear.” Sources, the organization notes, have differing theories about who the culprits of the theft were.

July 19, 1863: Shaw is buried in the rifle pits with his men.

1865: An excerpt from Solon A. Carter’s paper “Fourteen Months’ Service with Colored Troops,” which can be found in the book titled “Civil War Papers,” printed in 1900, gave historical society staff a major clue in documenting the recovery of the sword late in the war, Bentley said:

In July [1865], upon leaving the service, the late Assistant Adjutant General was charged by General Paine with the duty of restoring the sword to Colonel Shaw’s father, and upon arrival at this home, opened a correspondence with Mr. Francis George Shaw informing him of its recovery.

The sword in question proved to be the one carried by the gallant colonel and was identified by the initials R.G.S. delicately etched upon the blade.

In a postscript to one of his letters Mr. Shaw wrote,“The sword was a present to my son from his uncle, Mr. George R. Russell, who purchased it in England and caused the etchings to be made there.”

June 3, 1865: A letter written by Brigadier General Charles Jackson Paine to his family corroborated Solon’s account. Paine said the sword was reportedly in the possession of “a rebel officer,” according to Bentley’s notes. Paine sent officers of the “US Colored Troops” to retrieve the sword and bring it to him. The home was empty, but the sword was found after the area was searched.

March 2017: After a long gap where the sword’s whereabouts remained a mystery, it’s finally found in the attic of the home of Mary Minturn Haskins, who was married to Robert Bowne Minturn — Colonel Shaw’s sister’s grandson, and the father of the donors who gifted the sword to the historical society.

April 6, 2017: A member of the family e-mails Bentley explaining that Susanna Shaw Minturn, Shaw’s sister, was his great-grandmother “and apparently was very close to her brother [Shaw].”

The family presumes that the sword ended up in their mother’s home because it was passed on to their father. The sword might have hung on their father’s childhood bedroom wall, the family said.

April 17, 2017: The family gifts the sword to the Massachusetts Historical Society, as part of a larger gift including papers and portraits.

July 18, 2017: The sword will go on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society, more than 150 years after it was stolen from Shaw.

Such a cool story, and such an amazing piece of history to be found in an attic.



  1. Sam L. says:

    Most Excellent!

  2. Dead men tell no tales but their gospel is writ in the burnished steel of immortal blades. And when the time is right, these blades come forward to reveal tales of heroic deeds- or horrific misdeeds.

  3. John F. MacMichael says:

    This is the sword Shaw carried as he rode at the head of his regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, as they marched through Boston on May 28, 1863. His sister Ellen Shaw was among those watching as they went down Beacon Street and she later wrote:

    “I was not quite eighteen when the regiment sailed. My mother, Rob’s wife, my sisters and I were on the balcony to see the regiment go by, and when Rob riding at its head, looked up and kissed his sword, his face was as the face of an angel and I felt perfectly sure he would never come back.”

    On July 18, 1863, a little more than seven weeks later, Col. Shaw was killed in battle. He was shot leading his troops in the doomed assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. He was 25 years old.

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Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s sword discovered in Mass. attic

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