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A veterans group will present a petition next week to the New York delegation of Congress asking that the Medal of Honor be awarded to Civil War Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the first unit of free African Americans recruited into the Union army.
Shaw was killed while leading the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in an attack on Fort Wagner, S.C., on July 18, 1863. Half of the regiment was killed, wounded or missing following the failed attempt to take the fort, but the 54th’s bravery proved that black troops were courageous warriors, paving the way for other black units to be raised in the North, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Actor Matthew Broderick played Shaw in the 1989 movie “Glory,” which ends with Shaw being buried in a mass grave along with his men.
Because the Medal of Honor was not issued posthumously during the Civil War, Shaw was ineligible for the award at the time, Tom Levis told Army Times on Friday.
Levis serves on the board of management of a group made up of veterans from the Seventh Regiment of New York, in which Shaw served as a private in the opening days of the Civil War before being commissioned as an officer. His group is asking Congress to petition President Obama to award Shaw the Medal of Honor now.
“In addition to Col. Shaw earning it in the heat of battle, we think he began to earn it when he accepted command of the 54th Massachusetts, because when he accepted that command, he accepted the mission to prove the battle worthiness of the African American soldiers — that was a prime consideration of the governor of Massachusetts and the Secretary of War [Edwin] Stanton,” Levis said.
Shaw came from a wealthy but socially conscious family, Levis said. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew approached Shaw’s parents, who were both abolitionists, about asking Shaw to accept command of the 54th. At first, Shaw declined the offer.
“Upon reflection, he accepted it, but I’m sure his hesitancy was he knew what the mission involved — and frankly, in many ways, it was a suicide mission,” Levis said. “He had to get that regiment into one of the worst battle situations in order to prove conclusively the battle worthiness of his men — and he did that; and they did that; it was quite an accomplishment.”