Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Robert Gould Shaw Before the 54th Massachusetts

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Most Civil War enthusiasts these days are familiar with Robert Gould Shaw. The son of wealthy Boston abolitionists, he enlisted in the Union army as a very young man and served with the 7th New York Infantry, a 30-day unit, and then with the 2nd Massachusetts before his appointment as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts - one of the very first black regiments in the war.

Shaw was immortalized in the film Glory. His enthusiasm for leading a "colored" regiment was a bit overdone in the film - in reality he had declined the offer first suggested by his father in late 1862. As we all know...he eventually reconsidered - and the rest is history (as they say).

Before the war, Shaw's letters home reflect the thoughts of a young patriot - intensely passionate about Union - something that bleeds through (bad metaphor?) in a mostly secondary way in the film. Here is a letter from very early in the war, while Shaw served with the 7th - Stationed in Staten Island.
North Shore S.I. [Staten Island]
Thursday, April 18, 1861

Dearest Mother,

You will probably know when you get this, that the only piece of bad news to greet you when you arrive is that of my departure with the 7th Regt. 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.

We all feel that if we can get into Washington, before Virginia begins to make trouble, we shall not have much fighting. We expect to get there on Saturday [April 20]. […] Won’t it be grand to meet the men from all the States, East and West, down there, ready to fight for the country, as the old fellows did in the Revolution?

Our Col. [Marshall Lefferts] tells us we are only going to Washington for the present and shall be sent back to New York as soon as troops from the more distant States can arrive. I feel as if I were not going on anything but an ordinary journey. I can’t help crying a little through when I think of Father & you & the girls. Don’t be too anxious. Please be careful of your health. May God bless you all. When we are all at home together again, may peace & happiness be restored to the Country. The war has already done us good, in making the North so united.

The unit moved on from New York and made their way to Annapolis Maryland and eventually to the defenses of Washington City. Shaw didn't see much action with the 7th, but would fight at Winchester, Ceder Mountain, and Antietam with the 2nd before assuming command of the 54th.

Shaw is somewhat different from the character seen on the screen - my suggestion: read Blue Eyed Child of Fortune, the edited collection of his letters. You will come away with a much more thorough understanding of the man.



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