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Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune

The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Robert Gould Shaw

Publication Year: 1992

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.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

"In the fall of 1856, two great American educations glanced across one another. Robert Gould Shaw was a freshman at Harvard, Henry Brooks Adams a junior. As there were only 382, students at the college, the two must have met, although there is no record that either made much of an impression on the other. The upperclassman, traveling far, went on to record the better..."

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pp. xv-xx

"Robert Gould Shaw was merely a competent officer, but he was not an ordinary soldier. Coming from great wealth and advantage, Shaw stood among the high profile regiments of the war: Seventh New York National Guard, Second Massachusetts Infantry, and Fifty-fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry. The Seventh distinguished itself by being the first regiment..."

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Editorial Method

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pp. xxi-xxiv

"In 1864, Sarah Shaw compiled the Civil War letters written by her son Robert, edited them, and had them published for members of the family and close friends. That volume, Letters: RGS, exists today only in the rare book rooms of a handful of libraries and in private collections. The most accessible..."

Abbreviations in Notes

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pp. xxv-xxviii

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INTRODUCTION: A Biographical Essay

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pp. 1-68

"On the Boston Common, Robert Gould Shaw rides his horse in step with his regiment marching Southward forever with straight backs, forward eyes, and long strides. In Augustus Saint-Gaudens's greatest sculpture, Shaw, white, and his men, black—and all bronze—recall that eight and twentieth day of May in 1863 when one thousand men strode with swaying..."

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CHAPTER ONE: "Goodbye the Drum Is Beating"

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pp. 69-99

"The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was more than Southern white leaders could tolerate. After years of acrimonious compromise over whether the nation would embrace slave or free labor in the expanding western lands, many, North and South, understood that the results of the late presidential election would intensify the momentous question of what to do..."

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CHAPTER TWO: "The Road through the Woods"

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pp. 100-110

"The war had certainly not ended during the thirty-day enlistment period of the Seventh New York. Private Shaw decided that there was as much of a reason to stay in the army as there had been to come out in the first place. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the newly formed Second..."

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CHAPTER THREE: "John Brown's Prison"

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pp. 111-129

"For many Americans of Shaw's era and for some later historians, the Civil War started not in Charleston Harbor on April 12,1861, but in the Virginia river town of Harper's Ferry on October 16,1859. At Harper's Ferry, an unremarkable place except for the U.S. Arsenal located there, John..."

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CHAPTER FOUR: "A Regular Old Jog Trot Camp Life"

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pp. 130-153

"After the First Battle of Bull Run, Northern armies in the Eastern Theater put more effort into training and discipline than into searching out and fighting Southern armies. George B. McClellan worked hard to transform raw recruits into competent soldiers. Lieutenant Shaw admired..."

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CHAPTER FIVE: "Ladies with Petticoats About"

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pp. 154-175

"Union armies had accomplished little by the end of 1861. At Ball's Bluff, Virginia, Confederate troops surprised and routed the Federals. Many of Shaw's friends, including future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., suffered wounds, death, or capture. In Southern elections,..."

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CHAPTER SIX: "What War Really Is"

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pp. 176-198

"As winter melted into spring in 1862., Federal troops made major advances. In the West, a nova exploded upon the scene in the form of Ulysses S. Grant's victories at Shiloh and Forts Donelson and Henry. In the East, McClellan launched his peninsular campaign against Richmond. Off..."

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CHAPTER SEVEN: "A Lull before the Storm"

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pp. 199-226

"After a year of campaigning, Lieutenant Shaw had neither fired his pistol nor raised his sword against the enemy. Adept at drill, he still questioned his ability to fight and wanted a chance to test himself. He soon got his wish as Stonewall Jackson outmarched and outfought the three..."

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CHAPTER EIGHT: "Metallic Coffins"

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pp. 227-250

"The 'storm' blew its fury across the land in a wave of blood still unsurpassed on North American soil. The rainbow that followed promised liberty to millions of slaves. On a furious Wednesday along Antietam Creek, Maryland, Lee's army met McClellan's. When the fighting ended,..."

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CHAPTER NINE: "Even More than Mother"

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pp. 251-281

"In the aftermath of Antietam, McClellan failed to press Lee's weakened army. In fact, McClellan resisted moving the Army of the Potomac even after Lincoln visited camp and lived in a tent beside him. When he finally acted on October 2.6, it was too late. After midterm congressional..."

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CHAPTER TEN: "I as a Nigger Colonel"

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pp. 282-294

"During the early months of 1863, with battlefield casualties rising, desertions increasing, and volunteering decreasing, Lincoln and Congress acted to secure men for the Union armies. On March 3, Congress passed the Enrollment Act, which authorized a draft of all men of ages twenty to..."

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CHAPTER ELEVEN: "The Camp at Readville"

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pp. 295-314

"The war was moving in slow motion as armies on both sides readied themselves for the spring campaigns. During the war, springtime forsook its normal meaning as a time of rejoicing, new birth, and life to become a time of fear, sorrow, and dying. Meadows became battlefields; streams and..."

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CHAPTER TWELVE: "So Fine a Set of Men"

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pp. 315-330

"The armies of the North had begun the spring offensives that might end the war. In the West, Ulysses S. Grant advanced upon Vicksburg, the strongest Confederate position on the Mississippi River. In Virginia, the Army of the Potomac under..."

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN: "The Burning of Darien"

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pp. 331-352

"The gray line moved north, the blue line stayed put, and the black line went south. On June 3, Lee began his second invasion of the North, pulled along unknowingly by the magnet that became Gettysburg. At Brandy Station on June 6, twenty thousand horsemen under J. E. B. Stuart and Alfred Pleasanton charged and recharged each other for nearly twelve hours in the..."

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN: "Montgomery the Kansas Man"

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pp. 353-370

"During his third month at war, Shaw, in Virginia, had visited the site of John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry and his jail cell in Charlestown. Now in his third year of war, Shaw, in South Carolina, became enamored with James Montgomery, who had been Brown's most able lieutenant..."

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN: "God Isn't Very Far Off"

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pp. 371-383

"The war sped on, but the beginning of the end had come. On successive July days, Lee lost at Gettysburg and Grant walked into Vicksburg. Shaw missed his old regiment, and news of the victory in Pennsylvania and the deaths of more of his friends caused him to regret that he was so far away. He was a bit consoled by his proximity to Charleston. He believed that..."

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN: "Nothing but Praise"

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pp. 384-388

"On the early morning of July 16, the soldiers of the Fiftyfourth Massachusetts Infantry stood strong. They were on picket duty when a Confederate force screamed the Rebel yell and slammed into them. Forced to retreat, the regiment fought a delaying action that prevented the enemy from routing it and a white regiment, the Tenth Connecticut. The tough resistance..."


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pp. 389-390

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 391-404


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pp. 405-421


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pp. 422-428

E-ISBN-13: 9780820342771
E-ISBN-10: 0820342777
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820314594
Print-ISBN-10: 0820314595

Page Count: 480
Illustrations: 43 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 1992

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Shaw, Robert Gould, 1837-1863 -- Correspondence.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Participation, African American.
  • Massachusetts -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Personal narratives.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Personal narratives.
  • United States. Army. Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, 54th (1863-1865) -- History.
  • Soldiers -- Massachusetts -- Correspondence.
  • Soldiers -- United States -- Correspondence.
  • Massachusetts -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Participation, African American.
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