Cover image for Blue-eyed child of fortune the Civil War letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

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Summary

Summary

On the Boston Common stands one of the great Civil War memorials, a magnificent bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It depicts the black soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry marching alongside their young white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. When the philosopher William James dedicated the memorial in May 1897, he stirred the assembled crowd with these words: "There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man. There on horseback among them, in the very habit as he lived, sits the blue-eyed child of fortune."

In this book Shaw speaks for himself with equal eloquence through nearly two hundred letters he wrote to his family and friends during the Civil War. The portrait that emerges is of a man more divided and complex--though no less heroic--than the Shaw depicted in the celebrated film Glory . The pampered son of wealthy Boston abolitionists, Shaw was no abolitionist himself, but he was among the first patriots to respond to Lincoln's call for troops after the attack on Fort Sumter. After Cedar Mountain and Antietam, Shaw knew the carnage of war firsthand. Describing nightfall on the Antietam battlefield, he wrote, "the crickets chirped, and the frogs croaked, just as if nothing unusual had happened all day long, and presently the stars came out bright, and we lay down among the dead, and slept soundly until daylight. There were twenty dead bodies within a rod of me."

When Federal war aims shifted from an emphasis on restoring the Union to the higher goal of emancipation for four million slaves, Shaw's mother pressured her son into accepting the command of the North's vanguard black regiment, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts. A paternalist who never fully reconciled his own prejudices about black inferiority, Shaw assumed the command with great reluctance. Yet, as he trained his recruits in Readville, Massachusetts, during the early months of 1963, he came to respect their pluck and dedication. "There is not the least doubt," he wrote his mother, "that we shall leave the state, with as good a regiment, as any that has marched."

Despite such expressions of confidence, Shaw in fact continued to worry about how well his troops would perform under fire. The ultimate test came in South Carolina in July 1863, when the Fifty-fourth led a brave but ill-fated charge on Fort Wagner, at the approach to Charleston Harbor. As Shaw waved his sword and urged his men forward, an enemy bullet felled him on the fort's parapet. A few hours later the Confederates dumped his body into a mass grave with the bodies of twenty of his men. Although the assault was a failure from a military standpoint, it proved the proposition to which Shaw had reluctantly dedicated himself when he took command of the Fifty-fourth: that black soldiers could indeed be fighting men. By year's end, sixty new black regiments were being organized.

A previous selection of Shaw's correspondence was privately published by his family in 1864. For this volume, Russell Duncan has restored many passages omitted from the earlier edition and has provided detailed explanatory notes to the letters. In addition he has written a lengthy biographical essay that places the young colonel and his regiment in historical context.


Summary

On the Boston Common stands one of the great Civil War memorials, a magnificent bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It depicts the black soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry marching alongside their young white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. When the philosopher William James dedicated the memorial in May 1897, he stirred the assembled crowd with these words: "There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man. There on horseback among them, in the very habit as he lived, sits the blue-eyed child of fortune."

In this book Shaw speaks for himself with equal eloquence through nearly two hundred letters he wrote to his family and friends during the Civil War. The portrait that emerges is of a man more divided and complex--though no less heroic--than the Shaw depicted in the celebrated film Glory . The pampered son of wealthy Boston abolitionists, Shaw was no abolitionist himself, but he was among the first patriots to respond to Lincoln's call for troops after the attack on Fort Sumter. After Cedar Mountain and Antietam, Shaw knew the carnage of war firsthand. Describing nightfall on the Antietam battlefield, he wrote, "the crickets chirped, and the frogs croaked, just as if nothing unusual had happened all day long, and presently the stars came out bright, and we lay down among the dead, and slept soundly until daylight. There were twenty dead bodies within a rod of me."

When Federal war aims shifted from an emphasis on restoring the Union to the higher goal of emancipation for four million slaves, Shaw's mother pressured her son into accepting the command of the North's vanguard black regiment, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts. A paternalist who never fully reconciled his own prejudices about black inferiority, Shaw assumed the command with great reluctance. Yet, as he trained his recruits in Readville, Massachusetts, during the early months of 1963, he came to respect their pluck and dedication. "There is not the least doubt," he wrote his mother, "that we shall leave the state, with as good a regiment, as any that has marched."

Despite such expressions of confidence, Shaw in fact continued to worry about how well his troops would perform under fire. The ultimate test came in South Carolina in July 1863, when the Fifty-fourth led a brave but ill-fated charge on Fort Wagner, at the approach to Charleston Harbor. As Shaw waved his sword and urged his men forward, an enemy bullet felled him on the fort's parapet. A few hours later the Confederates dumped his body into a mass grave with the bodies of twenty of his men. Although the assault was a failure from a military standpoint, it proved the proposition to which Shaw had reluctantly dedicated himself when he took command of the Fifty-fourth: that black soldiers could indeed be fighting men. By year's end, sixty new black regiments were being organized.

A previous selection of Shaw's correspondence was privately published by his family in 1864. For this volume, Russell Duncan has restored many passages omitted from the earlier edition and has provided detailed explanatory notes to the letters. In addition he has written a lengthy biographical essay that places the young colonel and his regiment in historical context.


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Duncan has assembled the Civil War letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the fascinating subject of the critically acclaimed film Glory. Born into a wealthy, decidedly reformist family, young Shaw reluctantly accepted the command of the Union's first black regiment in 1862. Though he initially had reservations about the efficacy and the wisdom of sending black men into battle, he endeavored to overcome his ambivalence, and proved to be an able leader in adverse circumstances. Shaw's revelatory missives to his parents, his sisters, his wife, and his friends underscore the paradoxical struggle of a man, firmly rooted in his time, who is charged with the daunting task of providing an ideal for the future. An insightful biographical essay places the chronologically arranged letters into proper historical context. Requisite reading for Civil War buffs and students of social history. ~--Margaret Flanagan


Choice Review

Duncan (John Carroll Univ.) adds depth to the image of Robert Gould Shaw, known to the public because of the motion picture Glory, by updating a collection of Shaw's letters selected, first edited, and printed privately by his mother in 1864. This extensively annotated work begins with an excellent bibliographic essay. It introduces Shaw, the son of abolitionists, who enlisted in the Union Army because of patriotism, honor, and a need to prove his manhood. A competent officer loyal to his regiment, Shaw earned his place in history when he reluctantly assumed command of the new African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Initially a paternalist who shared the white racism of his era, Shaw gradually learned to appreciate the mettle of his troops. Shaw died in the futile attack at Battery Wagner in 1863. His sacrifice and that of his men paved the way for the formation of additional African American regiments. Recommended for libraries specializing in African American and Civil War history. See also Joseph T. Glatthar's Forged in Battle (CH, Mar'90). J. Mushkat; University of Akron


Library Journal Review

These letters will surprise readers who know Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry only through the movie Glory or the bronze memorial in Boston Commons. Most relate Shaw's wartime experiences in Virginia before he reluctantly agreed to lead the 54th; they are interesting yet unremarkable as Civil War letters. His letters after he took command reveal him as less ardent in his abolitionism and less certain of his black charges than movie and myth would have it, but they do suggest how war and social purpose drove a Boston blueblood to martyrdom on the ramparts of Fort Wagner. An excellent introduction and copious notes add to the importance of this book. Although less insightful than T.W. Higginson's classic Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870), Shaw's letters are essential for academic and large public libraries.-- Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

William S. McFeely
Forewordp. xi
Prefacep. xv
Editorial Methodp. xxi
Abbreviations in Notesp. xxv
Introduction: Robert Gould Shaw: A Biographical Essayp. 1
Chapter 1 "Goodbye the Drum Is Beating"p. 69
Chapter 2 "The Road through the Woods"p. 100
Chapter 3 "John Brown's Prison"p. 111
Chapter 4 "A Regular Old Jog Trot Camp Life"p. 130
Chapter 5 "Ladies with Petticoats About"p. 154
Chapter 6 "What War Really Is"p. 176
Chapter 7 "A Lull before the Storm"p. 199
Chapter 8 "Metallic Coffins"p. 227
Chapter 9 "Even More than Mother"p. 251
Chapter 10 "I as a Nigger Colonel"p. 282
Chapter 11 "The Camp at Readville"p. 295
Chapter 12 "So Fine a Set of Men"p. 315
Chapter 13 "The Burning of Darien"p. 331
Chapter 14 "Montgomery the Kansas Man"p. 353
Chapter 15 "God Isn't Very Far Off"p. 371
Chapter 16 "Nothing but Praise"p. 384
Appendixp. 389
Selected Bibliographyp. 391
Indexp. 405
Epiloguep. 422