Robert Gould Shaw was, from any purely military standpoint, a minor figure in the Civil War. Nevertheless, his position as white leader of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, the premier regiment of Union African American troops, one of the first to fight in the war, brought him and many of his men a hero’s death and earned them a magnificent monument created by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens on the grounds of Boston Common. Relegated to footnotes during most of the twentieth century, Shaw was brought back to public attention as the subject of the Academy Award-winning film Glory in 1989. Inspired by the film, Russell Duncan, a professor of history, undertook the collection and annotation of Shaw’s Civil War letters, some of which had been published (and sometimes expurgated) by Shaw’s mother, Sarah, in 1864. Bringing together other letters from additional sources, and restoring to original form letters Shaw’s mother had edited, Duncan has made available an important and often compelling story of a young man’s movement into legend. The title, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, comes from the oration of William James (who knew Shaw and whose brother, Garth Wilkinson James, served with Shaw in the Fifty-fourth) delivered at the 1897 dedication of the memorial. James had it right, for Shaw was a “child of fortune,” caught up in a surge of history that carried him to a greatness beyond his own knowing or doing.
The son of a wealthy and prominent abolitionist family, Shaw had spent his youth enjoying the luxuries and advantages of the privileged few. His parents had been financial supporters of the Brook Farm communal experiment described by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an acquaintance, in The Blithedale Romance (1852) as well as other idealistic ventures originating during this period of great social change. They were also strong advocates in the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Boston Vigilance Committee, both of which helped runaway slaves find freedom in the North. Shaw grew up among many notable reformers and writers of the Transcendentalist period, among them Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. As a boy, he attended first Fordham and then the Roulet boarding school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. During his years in Europe, he sometimes indulged himself in high living, but by the time he returned to enter Harvard, Shaw had become increasingly aware of the inevitability of war, a struggle, as he and his family saw it, primarily over the question of slavery. Following the secession of South Carolina from the Union, Shaw immediately joined the Seventh New York National Guard, among the first troops sent to Washington to protect the capital from capture by the Confederates, a very real possibility at this early point in the war.
Although Shaw admired his parents’ social idealism, he was not himself a confirmed believer in all of their causes. The war gave him the opportunity to discover his own truths. Although he completely supported the Union, he often questioned the political and military leaders who commanded it. He also quickly found that the life (and death) of a soldier was not the adventure he had imagined originally. He wrote his mother after leaving with his regiment for Washington, “It is very hard to go off without bidding you goodbye, and the only thing that upsets me, in the least, is the thought of how you will feel when you find me so unexpectedly gone. But I know, dearest Mother, that you wouldn’t have me stay, when it is so clearly my duty to go.… We all feel that if we can get into Washington, before Virginia begins to make trouble, we shall not have much fighting.” Later he wrote, “It is a pleasant feeling to be here bullying the Southerners.” Shaw and his fellow soldiers at first thought the worst of their enemy, accepting each rumor of Southern cruelty and barbarism. It was a mark of Shaw’s growth as a soldier and as a man that he soon came to respect his Confederate opponent. He could write, “I long for the day when we shall attack the Rebels with an overwhelming force and annihilate them. May I live long enough to see them running before us hacked to little pieces,” but a week later observe, “If the treatment of our prisoners depended on the officers and soldiers of the Rebel army, I think they would fare well, for those I have met seem to have no bitter feeling towards us. We can’t help getting a feeling of respect for each other, after such a fight as the last.”
One of the great pleasures of reading a collection of letters such as this one is to witness the development of the writer through a telescoping of time and events. The callow Rob Shaw who goes off to war is far different from the bloodied Colonel Robert Shaw who prepares to lead his men into a desperate and doomed attack on Fort Wagner. The reader’s foreknowledge that all Shaw’s choices and chances over three years will ultimately converge into this final massacre lends a true poignancy, but also a real irony, to the letters. For example, his life is saved in May, 1862, when a bullet hits his pocket watch; later he is hit in the neck by a bullet that already has passed through another soldier and fails to penetrate his own body.
These letters challenge modern sensibility in a number of ways. Shaw was a true patriot, but he also was a victim of...
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