As far as I’m concerned, today is Robert Gould Shaw Day. I encourage you to celebrate his 170th birthday by reading a bit about him. Why not stop at the video store on the way home from work and rent Glory, starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington?
Shaw entered the world on October 10, 1837 in Boston. His parents were wealthy abolitionists. They encouraged their only son, as well as their four daughters, to be socially conscious. Shaw dropped out of Harvard after his junior year and entered a clerkship position in New York. However, the election of 1860 captured his attention.
Shaw watched the country unravel after the election. Just a week before the South fired on Fort Sumter, Shaw wrote a hurried letter to his sister:
We have exciting news today from the South. It is now almost certain that Mr. Lincoln is going to re-enforce the United States forts, and in that case the Southerners will almost surely resist...For my part I want to see the Southern States either brought back by force, or else recognized as independent.
Shaw joined the 7th Regiment of the NY State Militia. When Lincoln called for 75,000 troops, just after the fall of Fort Sumter, Shaw marched with the 7th NY to Washington, D.C.
Shaw’s letters home during this period show how young and unprepared he was for what awaited him. “We all feel that, if we can get to Washington before Virginia begins to make trouble, we shall not have much fighting,” Shaw wrote to his mother. “The Massachusetts men passed through New York this morning...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?"
He also tried to calm his sister’s fears and possibly his own. "You mustn't think, dear Sue, that any of us are going to be killed,” he wrote, “for they are collecting such a force there that an attack would be insane, that is, unless the Southerners can get their army up in an impossibly short space of time."
Shaw’s time in Washington was eventful. A fellow private in the 7th NY named Rufus King had political connections in the nation’s capitol. His father was the president of Columbia College and had arranged for his son to meet Secretary of State Seward. King asked Shaw to come along. During the brief meeting, Shaw said he wanted to meet the president. Sec. Seward gave him a note and pointed him in the right direction. Shaw wrote:
After waiting a few minutes in an antechamber, we were shown into a room where Mr. Lincoln was sitting at a desk perfectly covered with papers of every description. He got up and shook hands with us both, in the most cordial way, asked us to be seated, and seemed quite glad to have us come. It is really too bad to call him one of the ugliest men in the country, for I have seldom seen a pleasanter or more kind-hearted looking one, and he has certainly a very striking face…
A few weeks later, Shaw received a commission as second lieutenant in the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. By July, Shaw and the 2nd MA were at Harpers Ferry, where one of their responsibilities included tracking down runaway slaves and returning them to their masters. Shaw was torn between his parents’ abolitionist teachings and government policy.
On May 19, 1862, Shaw wrote to his father, detailing his interest in forming a regiment of black soldiers:
You will be surprised to see that I am in Washington. I came down with Major Copeland to see if I could assist him at all, in a plan he has made for getting up a black regiment. He says, very justly, that it would be much wiser to enlist men in the North, who have had the courage to run away, and have enlist men in the North, who have had the courage to run away, and have already suffered for their freedom, than to take them all from contrabands at Port Royal and other places...Copeland wants me to take hold of the black regiment with him, if he can get permission to raise it, and offers me a major's commission in it.
Shaw was at the Battle of Antietam. Before sunset on the bloodiest day in American history, Shaw witnessed the horrific scenes of death and dying:
...such a mass of dead and wounded men, mostly Rebels...I never saw before; it was a terrible sight, and our men had to be very careful to avoid treading on them; many were mangled and torn to pieces of artillery, but most of them had been wounded by musketry fire. We halted right among them and the men did everything they could for their comfort, giving them water from their canteens and trying to place them in easy positions...
After the battle, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Surprisingly, Shaw’s reaction was subdued:
So the Proclamation of Emancipation, has come at last, or rather its forerunner. I suppose you are all very much excited about it. For my part, I can't see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been there remain no slaves, and the Proclamation will not free them where we don't go...Jeff Davis will soon issue a proclamation threatening to hang every prisoner they take, and will make this a war of extermination.
On February 2, 1863, Massachusetts Governor Andrew wrote to Shaw’s father. Not only would Shaw’s dream of a black regiment come to fruition, but the governor wanted him to accept the position of colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. .
The movie Glory takes up the story from the winter of 1863 to the assault against Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. If you’ve never seen the film, I encourage you to rent it. You don’t have to be a Civil War aficionado to appreciate it.
For those of you who have seen the film, you’ll appreciate James M. McPherson’s essay, “The Glory Story” in Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (99-109). Here is a snippet:
“Can movies teach history?” asked the title of a New York Times feature article. The answer for Glory is yes. It is not only the first feature film to treat the role of black soldiers in the Civil War; it is also the most powerful movie about that war ever made, and one that strives for greater historical accuracy than we have come to expect from Hollywood. It does much to correct the distortions and romanticizations of such earlier blockbuster films as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). It grapples more forthrightly with the issues of what the war was about than Gettysburg(1993). Approaching their sixtieth anniversary on the screen, Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler are still teaching false and stereotyped lessons about slavery and the Civil War to millions of viewers. Glory throws a cold dash of realism over the “moonlight and magnolias” portrayal of the Confederacy. It also helps restore the courageous image of black soldiers and their white officers that prevailed in the North during the latter war years and early postwar decades, before the process of romanticizing the Old South obscured that image.