Becomes an officer in the Second Massachusetts

When his time with the Seventh New York ended, Shaw applied for a commission as an officer in the Second Massachusetts Regiment. Under the direction of Colonel George H. Gordon, Shaw learned military discipline and his self-confidence increased. He finally seemed to have found something meaningful to do with his life. Within a short time, the Second Massachusetts began to see action in the war. They were sent to the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia, where they engaged in a number of skirmishes (brief fights) with Confederate forces under the command of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824-1863; see entry).

During breaks in the fighting, Shaw began thinking and talking with other officers about the wisdom of using black soldiers, and especially former slaves, in the Union Army. At this point, Federal law prohibited black men from joining the army. Many Northern whites wanted to keep it that way. Some whites claimed that the purpose of the Civil War was to restore the Union rather than to settle the issue of slavery. And since the war was not about slavery, they felt that there was no need to change the law so that black people could join the fight. Another reason that many Northern whites did not want black men to be allowed to join the army was deep-seated racial prejudice. Some whites believed that they were superior to blacks and did not want to fight alongside them. Finally, some Northerners worried that allowing blacks to become soldiers would convince the border states— four states that allowed slavery but remained part of the Union anyway—to join the Confederacy.

Black leaders and white abolitionists in the North were outraged at the policies and prejudices that prevented black men from fighting in the Civil War. Free black men from the North had tried to enlist from the earliest days of the conflict. They wanted to help the Union forces put an end to slavery. They also believed that proving their patriotism and courage on the field of battle would help improve their position in American society. Many Northern blacks signed petitions asking the Federal government to change its rules, but the government refused. In the meantime, thousands of blacks—both freemen and escaped or liberated slaves—provided unofficial help for the cause by serving as cooks, carpenters, laborers, nurses, scouts, and servants for the Union troops.

Shaw and some of his fellow officers believed that allowing black men to become soldiers could only help the Union war effort. "Isn't it extraordinary that the Government won't make use of the instrument that would finish the war sooner than anything else—the slaves?" Shaw wrote. "What a lick it would be to [the Confederates] to call on all the blacks in the country to come and enlist in our army! They would probably make a fine army after a little drill, and could certainly be kept under better discipline than our independent Yankees [Northerners]!"

In September 1862, Shaw's regiment joined a large Union force under General George B. McClellan (1826-1885; see entry) along Antietam Creek in Maryland. On September 17, they fought a vicious day-long battle against Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870; see entry). The Battle of Antietam killed or wounded more than twenty-three thousand Union and Confederate soldiers, making it the single bloodiest day in Civil War history. Although the fighting ended without a clear winner, Lincoln used it as an excuse to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. This document stated his intention to free all the slaves in Confederate territory on January 1, 1863. In addition, it declared that black men would officially be allowed to serve in the Union Army.

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