Robert Gould Shaw was the son of a prominent Boston abolitionist family. He was serving as a captain in the 2nd Massachusetts when, at age 26, he was appointed colonel of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts , the first Black regiment of troops organized in a northern state.

In 1863, he led his regiment in an assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, where he perished, along with one-quarter of his troops. He was buried in a common grave along with the Black soldiers he commanded.