Robert Gould Shaw’s drinking and gambling buddies, his fellow Harvard oarsmen and comrades in white regiments all recorded his gaiety, cheerful temper, and frank, easy manners. But he came of crusading stock. The namesake grandfather summoned the sixteen-year-old to his deathbed and exhorted him to use his “example and influence” against the ills besetting the republic, intemperance and slaveholding. His sickly mother constantly reminded him that if he worked for righteousness she could face her impending death serenely (she outlived him by forty years). When his time came, Shaw accepted the colonelcy of the 54th Massachusetts after only a night’s brooding, and, aged twenty-five, and newly wed, went forward to certain martyrdom on Morris Island showing only a slight twitching at the corners of his mouth.
On TV Shelby Foote said the Fifty-Fourth “nevah shouldah made that chahge.” Bull-shit
. Of course they should have. Given that doomed assaults, last stands and forlorn hopes were dear to Victorian hearts; that for all its sentiment, the age imposed a harsh ideal of conduct, often saw heavy losses as proof of a regiment’s “gallantry,” its fortitude in the thick of the fight; and given that most Northerners, even or especially reformers and abolitionists, viewed men of an enslaved race as feminized, in the mold of Beecher Stowe’s passive and good Uncle Tom, a heart-melting wretch but no one’s idea of a manly citizen—given all that, it seems to me that charging headlong into a rebel bastion and fighting its defenders hand-to-hand until half the assaulting force is dead or wounded is exactly
what you should do, if you want to demonstrate to such a public and to Army brass that the black race produces “true” men who can fight bravely, die “gallantly.” Remember, this was a culture that (like most in human history) felt “only murder makes men” (Du Bois’ wry phrase). People were deeply impressed that Shaw fell at the head of his regiment. The commander rallying his men, waving his sword in one hand and clutching his picturesquely bloodied breast with the other, was a figure of immense romance. Many reveled in Christ comparisons, because of the contempt shown Shaw’s corpse: the Confederates stripped it naked and displayed it within the fort, before doing what they
thought was the ultimate dishonor, tossing it to the bottom of ditch and covering it with the bodies of forty-five of his men. One might see in the burial of a wealthy white officer under a pile of blacks a Confederate version of crossroads crucifixion beside thieves—ineffectual degradation. The Northern press exulted in Shaw’s burial, called it the crown of his efforts. After the rebels abandoned Fort Wagner—the decomposing 54th had poisoned its freshwater well—Shaw’s father begged the army not to disturb his son’s remains.
Shaw repeatedly told his lieutenant-colonel he would perish in their first major fight. Was he planning such a death, or accepting it as preordained, as his duty? The tone of the testimony is vague. Shortly after the assault Shaw’s brother-in-law Charles Russell Lowell, a cavalryman killed the following year, wrote his wife that “the best Colonel of the best black regiment had to die, it was a sacrifice we owed,
—and how could it have been paid more gloriously?” In any case, the regiment’s unfaltering performance—of stoic composure, of the rite of the suicidal charge, of gyokusai
, say—quieted doubts about black troops and opened the floodgates of enlistment. And the 178,000 black soldiers who followed in the wake of the 54th not only helped win the war that destroyed slavery, they got our foot in the door, civically: Lincoln at his most cautious and conservative knew he could not, postwar, deny black veterans the vote. In the darkness of their bondage,
In the depths of slavery’s night,
Their muskets flashed the dawning,
And they fought their way to light.
(Paul Laurence Dunbar, “The Colored Soldiers”)When General Thomas rode over the field
[at Nashville], and saw the bodies of colored men side by side with the foremost on the very works of the enemy, he turned to his staff, saying, “Gentlemen, the question is settled: Negroes will fight.” How extraordinary, and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men.
(W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction
But about Burchard’s book…it is skimpy and uninspired. Wikipedia says he wrote mostly for children and young people. In desultory follow-up reading, I saw Burchard listed among the revisionist historians—little Stracheys lifting Shaw’s statue to expose wormy neuroses and Freudian family strife. Bland Burchard must be their least emphatic, most peripheral member; or simply a pioneer who first published the documents. Nothing in the book more than hints at the revisionist reading in which Shaw is a troubled young man who briefly rebels against—but in his need for approval, becomes the half-willing sacrifice of—Sarah Sturgis Shaw, his powerful mother and quintessence of New England’s evangelical, sentimental, abolitionist-reformist matriarchate. It is true that teenage Rob did much to scandalize expectations. The revisionist reading is founded on abundant evidence that Robert was at times the black sheep among his four older sisters (future social workers and suffragettes), domineering-because-sickly mother, as noted, and father who, at his wife’s urging, retired from business as a young man in order to evangelize reform (their money funded the Transcendentalist commune, Brook Farm, and an array of antislavery and feminist agitation). The revisionists see the father’s relinquishment of his career, the “male sphere” of Victorian gender division, as evidence of the castrating gynarchy of the Shaw household. Rob drank and partied across Germany while his sisters dutifully availed themselves of Paris, as a school of linguistic and musical finishing (the Shaws, like the Jameses, spent the 1850s educatively abroad; Wilkinson James, Henry’s younger brother, was an officer in the Fifty-Fourth). He wanted to attend Columbia instead of Harvard (oh, naughty boy!), and though forced into Harvard dropped out after two years. He rolled his eyes at abolitionism, wrote nasty things about blacks and the Irish his mother later scissored from his letters, and once declared, to parents consumed by national sin and public expiation, by what family friend Elizabeth Gaskell called “the deeper responsibilities of their position,” that he had no taste for anything but amusing himself.
I find the revisionists’ mother-hating proto-Hemingway as lifeless as the Abolitionist Saint—“the angel of God come down to lead the host of freedom to victory,” John Greenleaf Whittier called him—and am persuaded, at least for now, by Joan Waugh’s centrist and synthetic argument that in soldiering Robert found a confidence, a sense of his powers, and a version of his mother’s ideals, but cast in his own intensely masculine terms—recruiting the Fifty-Fourth he rejected one-third of applicants, and everyone from Boston reporters watching them drill to Confederate opponents burying their bodies remarked what “fine, strong, muscular fellows” the chosen men were; and he dreamt of leading his men into action alongside a white regiment and doing better
. Waugh thinks Shaw’s sudden and secret abandonment of the job found for him after Harvard, in the offices of an uncle’s firm, to march down Broadway and off to war with the 7th New York, at the outbreak in 1861, marked the consummation of his youthful rebellion and its end, the initiation of a maturity that saw him reconcile his ferocity and love of contest to his family’s public spirit and humanitarian piety. Reading Yourcenar on the Japanese tradition of hopeless battle I thought of Waugh’s interpretation, one of many covering the corpse of this young man long dead, Robert Gould Shaw:
After that, the leaders of the peasant class are lettered samurai, deeply imbued with neo-Confucian doctrines which accept thought only insofar as it ends in action, and who consider, like William the Silent in Europe, that “one need not hope in order to undertake.”…Civilization is the guardian of justice. Many hollow idealists have proclaimed similar slogans. Ōshio and Saigō signed theirs with their blood.