Robert Henry Shannon

Robert Henry Shannon was born in Dansville, New York, on October 27, 1816, to Samuel and Sarah Shannon. His father was a prominent local merchant and postmaster who opened the town’s first drug store. Growing up, Robert received an extensive education, learning Spanish, German, and Irish before enrolling at the University of Virginia to study law in 1836. On November 4, the proctor caught him gambling in the student dormitory. Three days later, the faculty voted to suspend Shannon from the University for the rest of the session.

After leaving UVA, Shannon moved to New York City, where he quickly became active in local politics. In January 1838, he participated in a massive rally condemning the gag rule, a resolution that prevented Congress from receiving or discussing antislavery petitions. By 1840, Shannon had joined the Whig Party, which promoted economic modernization through protective tariffs, internal improvements, and a centralized banking system. As a member of several ward-level committees, he denounced the “misrule and corruption” of the Democratic Party. Only Whig policies, he insisted, could ensure the “safety of our institutions,” the “future prosperity of our glorious government,” and the “welfare of our country.” Shannon demonstrated the complicated relationship between nativism and reform by supporting the insurgent Native American Party in 1844. The party insisted that the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 1840s would corrupt and degrade American society, and it sought to curtail immigrants’ political power by lengthening the naturalization period and restricting officeholding to native-born citizens.

On May 15, 1843, Shannon married Mary Martha Ingersoll, the daughter of Captain James B. Ingersoll. She died in Williamsburg, New York, on March 26, 1849, at the age of 29. Three years later, on January 28, 1852, he married Hester Ann Andrews in New York City. They had four children together over the next twelve years: Henry Clay Bolster, born August 8, 1854; William Pickell, born February 17, 1856; Robert Irving, born May 28, 1862; and Herbert Hahn, born August 6, 1864.

After Confederate soldiers attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, Shannon joined the Union war effort almost immediately. By May, he was a captain in the “First Regiment Constitution Guard,” which quickly enrolled more than 500 men. In a series of resolutions, the officers celebrated the men who had volunteered to “sustain the government of their own creation and choice”—a government that had “cheered and gladdened the hearts of patriots and freemen throughout the world.” With America’s republican experiment in peril, they rallied their men for the “holiest war in which patriots ever engaged or heroes fell.” The state consolidated the Constitution Guard with the 40th New York Infantry Regiment and mustered them into service that summer, but Shannon was not among their ranks. In November 1861, he organized the Von Beck Canal Rangers, tasked with protecting New York’s Hudson and Delaware Canal. By January 1862, he had recruited 268 men. When the state combined the regiment with the 102nd New York Infantry Regiment shortly afterward, however, Shannon was “not continued in service.” Although he was never mustered into military service, Shannon helped raise money, recruit soldiers, and encourage support for the Union war effort.

In March 1863, Shannon asked New York Senator Edwin D. Morgan to help him secure a more active position in the Union war effort. He was “exceedingly anxious and disirous [sic] of serving my country during the present difficulties,” and he hoped to receive an appointment as a chargé d'affaires in Europe or a judicial officer in “some one of the Rebel states.” Lincoln ultimately appointed him a U.S. Commissioner for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and he immediately began working to restore the state to the Union. He championed Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction, which readmitted states to the Union once ten percent of their 1860 voters had sworn an oath of allegiance and agreed to accept emancipation. He remained firmly committed to the Republican-led war effort. He denounced “Jeff. Davis and his minions” as well as the northern Peace Democrats who opposed emancipation.

Shannon remained in office after the war and became an ardent defender of Reconstruction. After Lincoln’s assassination, he initially supported President Andrew Johnson, a southern Unionist who had served as military governor of Tennessee for much of the war. Shannon soon became disillusioned with Johnson’s lenient policies, however, which effectively restored power to former Confederates and failed to protect newly freed slaves and white Unionists. By 1868, Shannon had embraced Radical Reconstruction. He promoted measures that punished former Confederates, empowered those newly freed, and politically and economically restructured the South.  As U.S. commissioner, Shannon vigorously enforced the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which extended citizenship to “all persons born in the United States” and granted them “full and equal benefit of all laws.” He fined and imprisoned white Louisianans for beating, murdering, and terrorizing African Americans; arrested election commissioners for preventing freedmen from voting; and arraigned state judges for failing to enforce the Civil Rights Act.

A District Court judge suspended Shannon from office in March 1877, and he returned to New York City, where he once again poured his efforts into social and political reform. He helped organize the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime, which sought to regulate and restrict the sale of alcohol. While members hoped to uphold “law and order,” critics accused them of being “zealous Pharisees” who spied on their neighbors and “compel men to be good in spite of their contrary inclinations.” Shannon also joined the Greenback Labor Party, an organization that opposed monopolies and supported workers’ rights and currency reform. In the early 1880s, as a member of the Anti-Monopoly movement, Shannon fought for an Interstate Commerce Commission, state and national railroad commissions, an end to convict leasing, and electoral reforms that would “defeat and punish corruption.”  In April 1887, he championed women’s suffrage in front of Brooklyn’s board of election. Kansas and Wisconsin had recently granted women the right to vote in some municipal and school elections, and Shannon insisted that those experiments had been a great success. New York’s women, he assured them, would “do their duty [just] as faithfully.”

Shannon continued to campaign for reform in the final years of his life. He died on August 13, 1896, in New York City, at the age of seventy-nine. His short obituary in the New York Times referenced his contributions to the Union cause during the Civil War and his membership in some of the city’s most prestigious social and professional organizations. He was survived by his wife and three of his adult sons. After her husband's death, Hester went to live with her son Herbert's family in Bergen County, New Jersey. She never applied for a pension and died there in 1901.


Robert H. Shannon Declares His Devotion to the Union

Robert H. Shannon to Abraham Lincoln

Robert H. Shannon to Edwin D. Morgan, March 13, 1863

Robert H. Shannon Addresses a Unionist Rally in Louisiana

Robert H. Shannon Defends the Radical Republican Party

Robert H. Shannon Defends Women's Suffrage

Name:Shannon, Robert Henry
Alternative names:
  • Shannon, Robert W. (alternative name)
  • Soldier
  • UVA (Union)
102nd New York Volunteer RegimentF&S
Branch of service:Army
Residence at UVA:Dansville, NY
UVA Begin Year:1836
UVA End Year:1837
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:
Rank Out:
Highest rank achieved:
Birth date:1816-10-27
Birth date certainty:certain
Birth place:Dansville, NY
Death date:1896-08-13
Death place:New York, NY
Causes of death:disease: unknown
Occupations:Attorney, Politician
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Shannon, Robert Henryparent ofShannon, Henry Clay Bolster
Shannon, Robert Henryparent ofShannon, William Pickell
Shannon, Robert Henryparent ofShannon, Robert Irving
Shannon, Robert Henryparent ofShannon, Herbert Hahn
Shannon, Hester Annwife ofShannon, Robert Henry
Shannon, Mary Marthawife ofShannon, Robert Henry

Brian Neumann, "'Efforts of Reform': UVA Unionist Robert H. Shannon and the Pursuit of Progress," 2 April 2019, Nau Center Blog, available from; Robert H. Shannon, Letters Received by Commission Branch, 1863-1870, RG 94, NARA, available from; Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Virginia: Session of 1836-37 (Charlottesville, VA: Tompkins & Noel, 1837), available from; The Archives of the Reformed Church in America; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Saint Paul's Dutch Church, Records, 1836-1873; 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1890 U.S. Federal Censuses; New Jersey, Wills and Probate Records, 1739-1991; all accessed on; The People of the State of New York v. Lucy Barber, in Reports of Cases Heard and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Vol. LV (New York: Banks & Brothers, 1888); November 1887. The New York Tribune, April 7, 1842, October 5, 1842, and October 7, 1842; The Evening Post, January 20 and 23, 1838; The Evening Post, May 17, 1843; The New York Herald, April 9, 1844 and April 12, 1844; The Weekly Herald, April 12, 1845; Brooklyn Evening Star, March 28, 1849; The New York Daily Herald, June 30, 1855; Journal of Education for Upper Canada, September 1857; The New York Daily Herald, May 3, 1861; The New York Times, May 8, 1861; The New York Daily Herald, May 21, 1861; The Daily True Delta (New Orleans, LA), January 21, January 30, February 13, February 20, and August 23, 1864; The Times Democrat (New Orleans, LA), May 6, 1865; The New Orleans Republican, March 27, 1868; The Daily True Delta, February 11, 1864; The New Orleans Republican, January 5, May 3 and June 6, 1868; The Natchez Democrat, July 25, 1868; The Times Picayune (New Orleans, LA), July 21, 1868; The New Orleans Daily Democrat, March 2, 1877; The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 8, 1877, February 6, 1880, and April 27, 1882; The New York Times, July 21, 1877, January 12, 1878, and April 13, 1883; The New York Tribune, August 9, 1878; The Times-Picayune, March 30, 1877; The New Orleans Republican,  April 7, 1877; The Sun (New York, NY), January 10, 1887; The Springville Journal (Springville, NY), January 21, 1887; The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY), April 6, 1887; The Central News (Perkasie, PA), November 10, 1887; The New York Times, August 15, 1896; James H. Smith, History of Livingston County, New York (Syracuse: D. Mason & Co., 1881), 167; Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Bruce Dorsey, Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002); Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 11-13.