Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2197

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.

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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 his—and his family’s—patriotism. He never totally shared their abolitionist beliefs, and his attitude toward the black race could be as condescending as his initial feelings toward Southerners. When Sarah Shaw first published his letters, she removed the more offensive of her son’s remarks on black people. Duncan, to his credit, has restored these lines and honestly examines Shaw’s sometimes contradictory thoughts on the question of race. When offered the command of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, Shaw, who was not the first choice, turned it down, preferring to stay with his friends and fellow soldiers in the Second Massachusetts. He wrote his fiancée Annie Haggerty, “If I had taken it, it would only have been from a sense of duty; for it would have been anything but an agreeable task.… I am afraid Mother will think I am shirking my duty; but I had some good practical reasons for it.” Within days, however, he had changed his mind, again writing Annie:

It is needless for me to overwhelm you with a quantity of arguments in favour of the negro troops; because you are with Mother, the warmest advocate the cause can have.… You know how many eminent men consider a negro army of the greatest importance to our country at this time. If it turns out to be so, how fully repaid the pioneers in the movement will be, for what they may have to go through! And at any rate I feel convinced I shall never regret having taken this step, as far as I myself am concerned; for while I was undecided I felt ashamed of myself, as if I were cowardly.

Shaw certainly was never a coward—he often discussed the likelihood of his death in battle—but he clearly met his death, and thus gained his significance, in large part because of his desire not to embarrass his family, especially his mother, Sarah, and his young bride, Annie. As Duncan astutely puts it,

The adrenaline of life and death on the field of battle brought Shaw closer to his comrades in a male world than he had ever been to his classmates at Harvard or to his boyhood companions. This universe of maleness helped him to pull at the strings of his female-dominated family, and helped him mature even though he had not been able to break free of his mother’s dominance by the time of his death. In that sense, Shaw never got past his mother; the monument on Boston Common is much more representative of her ambition than of his.

Thus, Shaw’s letters portray not only a soldier’s military conflict in war but also the more personal conflict of a son and lover attempting to define and prove himself to those in a world he has left behind. “You must have thought, from my late letters, that I was degenerating sadly from the principles in which I was brought up,” he wrote his mother in 1862, after having earlier questioned the ultimate worth of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from a military standpoint, “but an ordinary mortal must be somewhat affected by his surroundings, and events which you look at in one way from a distance, often seem very different when you are in the midst of them. The man at a distance is more apt to be impartial.” That Shaw could not be “impartial”—that he matured and questioned and searched for his own way of understanding—is one of the great strengths of this collection.

Although Duncan’s editorship of Shaw’s letters has much to praise, there are aspects that suggest that the book was rushed to capitalize on the interest in Shaw caused by the film Glory. Duncan’s introduction, a seventy-page biographical essay of Shaw, is extremely useful and carefully documented but sometimes written in a pedestrian manner. The annotations to the letters are placed at the end of each letter rather than at the foot of the page, an arrangement that requires the interested reader to flip back and forth from letter to note, to the detriment of the reading experience. In addition, the annotations themselves are too frequently inadequate. Some figures are identified by birth and death dates and a brief description; others are simply designated by a full name, which adds little to the information already gleaned from the letter itself. For example, in the letter of May 13, 1862, Shaw writes, “I haven’t seen Capt Perkins but believe he was detained in Washington by illness”; Duncan’s footnote reads simply, “Captain Perkins,” suggesting that he intended but failed to provide more discussion of this figure. There are numerous other people who also are insufficiently identified. At least one letter (June 6, 1862) has indications of footnotes within the text where none actually is given in the notes. Nevertheless, on the whole Duncan has done an impressive job of bringing together a great deal of information, and in his discussions of such figures as Colonel James Montgomery and Charlotte Forten, he has created significant portraits of fascinating historical personages.

Duncan surely overstates the case when he judges Shaw’s letters as “written in what may be the most eloquent prose any soldier wrote home during any war,” but Shaw was a gifted correspondent, one who grew in depths of feeling, judgment, and compassion as he neared his death. The early traces of the insecure martinet (Shaw believed in discipline and punishment, although he never went as far as Montgomery, who would shoot one of his own soldiers to prove a point) give way to the solemn determination of a man made haggard by the inevitable necessity of sacrifice. In one of his last letters, written on July 13, 1863, he thought of how different his life might be if he had never been offered or accepted command of the Fifty-fourth and had stayed with the Second Massachusetts, which had several days earlier fought in the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg:

I should have been Major of the Second now if I had remained there, and lived through the battles. As regards my own pleasure, I had rather have that place than any other in the army. It would have been fine to go home, a field-officer in that regiment. Poor fellows, how they have been slaughtered! …

My warmest love to Mamma and Clem.… That country place of ours is often before my eyes in the dim future.

Five days later, Shaw was dead, killed on the parapet of Fort Wagner. He was buried in a mass grave, the bodies of twenty of his black soldiers deliberately piled on top of him, “buried with his niggers” as some Southerners put it. Shaw’s parents refused to have their son’s body removed from the grave. “We do thank God that our darling…was chosen, among so many equals, to be the martyred hero of the downtrodden of our land,” his father would write. What becomes clear from these letters is that Shaw was much more complex, more ambiguous and torn, than either of these roles would suggest. Nor was he totally the serious, earnest character portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the film Glory. His letters reveal an infectious sense of humor, even of the absurd. He was a fascinating and admirable man in his own right. Russell Duncan has done well by him in bringing his letters to public attention in such a respectful yet honest manner.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, October 1, 1992, p. 231.

Boston Globe. October 11, 1992, p. 16.

Library Journal. CXVII, October 1, 1992, p. 104.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 27, 1992, p. 34.

Washington Times. October 31, 1992, p. B3.

Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 288

In the film GLORY, Robert Gould Shaw was portrayed as a rather stuffy but dedicated and idealistic young officer who led his regiment of African-American soldiers to a magnificent death in an attempt to take the Confederate Fort Wagner off the coast of South Carolina. The real Shaw, as evidenced by this collection of letters written to his parents, siblings, friends, and fiancee, was a much more interesting personality. When Shaw joined the Seventh New York at the beginning of the War, he was certain the struggle would be quickly won and looked forward to proving himself in battle. After one of the first fights, he wrote to his mother, “I don’t know whether you will like to hear about these things or not for they are horrible to see or to think of — but such scenes show us, more than anything, what war really is.” Although Shaw never lost his sense of adventure and even of humor, his letters grew progressively serious and considered.

The son of wealthy abolitionists, Shaw himself was less convinced than his parents that blacks could serve as effective soldiers. While he certainly came to respect his men and took pride in their accomplishments, he was never convinced of the equality of the races. He had, by the time of his death, become a professional soldier, one who could admire his enemy and face calmly the possibility of his own death. His letters are a revealing and often moving account of a young man’s growth in a time of war.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, October 1, 1992, p. 231.

Boston Globe. October 11, 1992, p. 16.

Library Journal. CXVII, October 1, 1992, p. 104.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 27, 1992, p. 34.

Washington Times. October 31, 1992, p. B3.

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