Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 82-83
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Where Death and Glory Meet:
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry
Of the thousands of monuments of granite and bronze erected in homage to the soldiers of the Civil War--those symbolic guardians of memory on battlefields, town squares and courthouse lawns--perhaps the best known is sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens's magnificent tribute to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and their commander, Robert Gould Shaw. Sitting ramrod-straight in the saddle, sword in hand and eyes fixed on an inescapable destiny, the youthful colonel is memorialized as the embodiment of idealistic service, and willing sacrifice. John Greenleaf Whittier thought him "as beautiful and awful as an angel of God come down to lead the host of freedom to victory," while the twentieth-century poet Robert Lowell wrote, "He rejoices in man's lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die."
Editor of the 1992 publication of Shaw's Civil War letters, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, Russell Duncan expands upon his thoughtful introduction to that volume with this biography of the young colonel who led his black soldiers to death on the ramparts of Fort Wagner. At the same time Where Death and Glory Meet is a distillation of that detailed and informative correspondence, so revealing of Shaw's character, and the expectations that impelled him to assume such fateful obligations.
This volume, the first book-length profile of Shaw since Peter Burchard's One Gallant Rush (1965), is essentially the colonel's story rather than a unit history of his command, for which Luis F. Emilio's A Brave Black Regiment (1891) remains the standard, though far from definitive source. Popularized by the Academy Award-winning film Glory--which despite Hollywood's inevitable errors and distortions presented a powerful evocation of Shaw, the 54th and the assault on Fort Wagner--the first African American regiment raised in the North is a compelling subject.
Twenty-three years old when the war began, Shaw was a child of privilege, pampered and indulged by his philanthropist father and strong-willed, doting mother--both of them dedicated social reformers and abolitionists. Educated at private schools in New York and Europe, the slight, blond-haired, fun-loving youth entered Harvard but chose to go into his uncle's business in New York rather than graduate with his class in 1860. There was an aimlessness and indifference to the young Brahmin that contrasted with his parents' earnest idealism. Citing Shaw's "dislike of discipline" and "intellectual shortcomings," Duncan notes, "He never really felt the immorality of slavery the way the abolitionists did." Indeed, in one 1858 letter he gently chided his mother, "I don't talk and think Slavery all the time." [End Page 82]
As a company officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, Shaw's life was focused on mastering his new profession, and he came to embrace the virtues of discipline and order inherent in that service. The horrors of Cedar Mountain and Antietam, and the loss of beloved comrades matured him. But when Governor Andrew tendered him the commission of colonel of the 54th Shaw was loath to accept that heavy burden. He did not feel "equal to the responsibility;" it was, he wrote, "anything but an agreeable task." But his mother exhorted him to his duty--"I feel as if God had called you up to a holy work"--and Robert Gould Shaw embraced his destiny.
Shaw's letters reveal him to have been far from a racial egalitarian. He noted that "the intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me," and used terms like "darkey" and "nigger" to describe his soldiers. But, as Duncan points out, that demeaning terminology largely disappeared from the colonel's correspondence as he came to identify with his troops, to...