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

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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.

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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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820321745
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 11/18/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 482
  • Sales rank: 225,819
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.22 (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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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2003

    Colonel Robert Shaw: An American Hero

    Colonel Shaw was an outstanding american. He gave his life for freedom. In that time period, even for the Union Army, blacks wernt considered a "real man" yet. Shaw looked past the socitey's veiwpoints, on african americans. He was proud of his men and died for his men. He was a HERO.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2001

    Wonderful Letters, Strange Conclusions

    Russell Duncan's compilation of war letters from Colonel Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts succeeds in one area and flounders in another. The letters themselves are eloquent and enjoyable: they provide a graphic portrayal both of the hardships this young soldier endured, his struggles to become his own man in the face of intelligent, reformist and sometimes domineering parents, and his development and leadership of his black regiment (we need to notice that this is a selection; Duncan has left out some letters which would introduce a more mature, humanitarian and politically canny Shaw to the reader). The notes, with a few exceptions, clarify the letters and make them accessible. My problem is with Duncan's introductory biography. He doesn't seem well-grounded in mid-19th Century family relationships, and his transposition of 20th Century mother-love battles doesn't help understand Shaw's family or his place in it. Duncan also seems to struggle with concepts like abolitionism, egalitarianism, elitism, and what we would call today 'classism' and 'racism.' He blurrs these together and measures them against a baseline of today's thinking, a controversial practice which gives some historians pause. Readers need to salt this collection with Fredrickson's 'The Inner Civil War' (a classic available since 1965) and the more recent 'The Vacant Chair' (1992, Reid Mitchell). In sum, the letters are worth the cost of the book, the prologue and some of the conclusions he draws in the notes, less so.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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