by William Stilwell, Park Ranger at Boston African American National Historic Site
This Memorial Day Weekend in Boston marks the unveiling of the restored Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial on Beacon St across from the State House. Originally dedicated on May 31, 1897, the St. Gaudens relief commemorates the Massachusetts 54th, the first all Black northern regiment in the Civil War, and their white commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw. (While the Emancipation Proclamation allowed for Black men to serve in the Army it required white officers.) Col. Shaw and almost half the regiment were killed in July 1863 at the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. One of the men killed in the battle was 18 year old Captain Cabot Jackson Russel, a member of King’s Chapel whose name can be found on the Chapel’s Civil War memorial.
Russel, born in New York City in 1844, grew up split between Boston and New York. He began attending Harvard around 1861, but left without completing his studies. After taking part in a research trip west to Wyoming in 1862, Russel, who kept a portrait of John Brown above his bed, felt the urge to return east and enlist in the Union Army. Enlisting as a private with the 44th Massachusetts, he soon was appointed to a vacant officer position.
The following spring he returned to Boston, this time to lead Company H of the newly organized 54th Massachusetts, training with the regiment in Readville, now Hyde Park, Boston. Leaving Boston May 28th 1863, the regiment made its way to South Carolina, where on July 15th, Russel was nearly killed in a skirmish with rebel forces. His life was saved when Private Preston Williams, one of the Black enlisted men, caught the saber of a rebel officer with his bayonet and promptly shot the man through the neck. Russel recounted the story to his father in a letter dated July 17th, 1863. It was the last letter he ever sent. The following day, the 54th engaged in the dangerous Battle of Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, where Russel was one of nearly 1,000 casualties. Preston Williams continued to serve with the 54th until March of 1864, when he unfortunately drowned near Jacksonville, Florida attempting to secure an enemy boat.
King's Chapel History Program
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