Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

The man who led America's first black regiment speaks for himself with equal eloquence through nearly 200 letters he wrote to his family and friends during the Civil War. The portrait that emerges is of a man more divided and complex--but no less heroic--than the Shaw depicted in the celebrated film Glory. "(Shaw's) letters . . . are an invitation for Americans to learn about one another."--from the Foreword by William S. McFeely.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Splendid . . . Important . . . Superb . . . Deserves a place on every Civil War bookshelf . . . Shaw emerges more vividly in this book than he did in the film Glory."—New York Times Book Review

"A fine and conscientious work."—Boston Globe

"An affecting collection."—Washington Times

"Glory resurrected Robert Gould Shaw as a dramatic figure. This book highlights Shaw as the man he really was. The written word far surpasses the screen image in quality."—Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Russell Duncan's outstanding edition of Shaw's letters is a model for this sort of work. . . . Sustained excellence."—Civil War Book Review

"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. . . . His letters are a revealing and often moving account of a young man's growth in a time of war."—Magill Book Reviews

"In Russell Duncan's new edition of the colonel's letters, we meet Robert Gould Shaw at last as a person, not as a symbol. . . . Readers of Shaw's letters will find a young man, not always deep or profound, but with a quality of character forged in conflict. . . . Of course, most readers will want to turn to the letters recounting his experiences as commander of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, and they will not be disappointed in the story of how colonel and soldiers taught one another how to be men as well as soldiers. . . . There is something heroic in struggling against one's limitations to achieve greatness. Editor Duncan should be congratulated for reminding us of this truth through bringing us closer to Shaw."—Journal of American History

"Duncan shows the human side of war as it is rarely seen. . . . an engaging portrait.”—Orlando Sentinel

Library Journal
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
Margaret Flanagan
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.
Booknews
Shaw was in command of the North's vanguard black regiment, the Fifty- fourth Massachusetts, when he was killed in battle at the age of 26. His uncommonly clear and reflective letters home were privately published by his family after his death, but that edition (now rare) had many significant deletions; Duncan has restored the omissions and provides explanatory notes and a biographical essay. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820314594
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/1992
  • Pages: 421
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.34 (d)

Meet the Author

Russell Duncan is a professor of history in the English Institute at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of several books, including First Person Past: American Autobiographies, Freedom’s Shore: Tunis Campbell and the Georgia Freedmen (Georgia), and Entrepreneur for Equality: Governor Rufus Bullock, Commerce, and Race in Post-Civil War Georgia (Georgia).

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  • Posted January 7, 2013

    There is NOTHING I do not love about this book! I love Colonel S

    There is NOTHING I do not love about this book! I love Colonel Shaw, and the regiment, and this book really helps us learn what it was like being in the Civil War.

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