Eric's Reviews > One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment

One Gallant Rush by Peter D. Burchard
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Jun 27, 11

bookshelves: americans, history, massacres, us-civil-war, war
Read in June, 2011

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.



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Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Movie tie-in does not seem auspicious, just on principle. Does the movie follow the book's interpretation? I know I saw it, but I was a teen, and my thoughts were mostly about who was cuter, Denzel or Broderick.


message 2: by Kelly (last edited Jun 27, 2011 02:28PM) (new)

Kelly Wonderful review. The story of Shaw's death, what happened to his and the Confederate attitude to it is... I guess striking is the word. I don't know what to say about it that isn't obvious. But thanks for telling it. I need to know more about this era than the battles and speeches- this is a good reminder to get on that.


message 3: by Chris (new)

Chris Love the review. Have you seen the memorial at the National Gallery in D.C.?


message 4: by Matt (new)

Matt Great review. I like the inclusion of Foote's comments, and your response to them. The more I learn about him, and what he said throughout his life, the more I come to see he has a serious race problem, which would seriously taint his The Civil War: A Narrative, if I ever go back and reread it.

(I recently read an old interview he gave, in which he stridently defended Confederate actions at Fort Pillow. What a guy!)


Eric Thanks guys!

Cerdiwen wrote: Does the movie follow the book's interpretation? I know I saw it, but I was a teen, and my thoughts were mostly about who was cuter, Denzel or Broderick.

C’mon, Denzel. Broderick has such scraggly facial hair, though of course so did Shaw.


description


Shaw’s relationship with his family is a non-issue in the movie. He’s presented as uncomplicated, if a little bashful about his abilities. (It’s interesting that the Cary Elwes character, the second-in-command, is first shown tipsy and skeptical of black troops; the regiment’s two lieutenant colonels were brothers from a family of True Believers, teetotal ex-Quakers who’d supported John Brown and served as bodyguards for some of the most fiery abolitionist orators.) I read the other day that the movie’s producers wanted to make their 54th stand for the experience of all black regiments in the war. So three of the four represented soldiers—Denzel, Morgan Freeman, Stammering Guy Who Finds His Voice—are ex-slaves, which is just the opposite of the Fifty-Fourth, an anomaly with only about 25% ex-slaves. Much in the movie is pure fiction. No one was ever whipped, but hey, how can you pass up the drama and paradox of blacks still getting flogged in the army of liberation, or Denzel dripping a soulful tear of wounded hope while gazing deep into Broderick’s eyes?


Thanks Kelly! I’m glad I could do something to urge the era onto another reader! I live for the moments when I look up from a book and think, “Wait…that happened?” If you’re like that too, the Civil War will never get old.


Chris wrote: Have you seen the memorial at the National Gallery in D.C.?

Isn’t it in Boston? No, I haven’t seen it. I just hope when I do I’m not underwhelmed. In pictures it looks breathtaking, and big, though I hear the figures are much less than life size.





Matt wrote: The more I learn about him, and what he said throughout his life, the more I come to see he has a serious race problem…

I think you’re right. I’ve only seen him on TV, but some of what he said for Burns’ camera does give one pause. Like his remark that Lincoln and Forrest were the two “great geniuses” of the war. What a disingenuous stab at equanimity! Shelby Foote, ladies and gentlemen, the only American who admires the Great Emancipator and the first Grand Wizard of the KKK equally! So…full…of…shit. Forrest was a brilliant soldier, but as a human, scum. Where is Foote’s defense of Fort Pillow published? I need to read that!


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Broderick is such a mensch though, which appeals to tittering virgins. Younger Me was a bit of a dufus. Surprising, I know.

Um, Fort Pillow? Is this where they dumped Shaw under the corpses of his soldiers? Or something else? Sorry, this stuff is all news to me. (And interesting news, don't get me wrong.)


message 7: by Chris (new)

Chris There is also one in Washington, D.C. Same one, but in gold. It looks much better when you look closer because of the detail.


Eric Oh, the gold. I kept seeing a gold one in my Google search and wondered. Thanks! I might visit DC in the fall and will have to check it out.

Fort Pillow was a Union position in Tennessee that surrendered to rebels under Nathan Bedford Forrest, Shelby Foote's crush, in April 1864. Some of Forrest's men massacred black POWs captured with the garrison.


message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

Yeah, I would like to see a defense of that.


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

"They needed killin"?


message 11: by Eric (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric Well, when they get all uppity-like, what else you gone do?


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh Lord, I am laughing so much and it is so inappropriate. Sorry history! You are depressing and hilarious!


message 13: by Eric (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric Julie hates my Southern voice--I've named him Zeke--but, I plead, how else do you translate Republican talking points while watching the evening news?


message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Hahahaha, oh shit, this just gets better. Do you have a name for your newsreel voice??

Sorry Julie!


message 15: by Eric (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric Oh, you mean my high pitched 1940s BBC "We've got Jerry on the run" voice? He's anonymous as yet. He represents the indomitable collective will of the British Empire before Naz-ee tyranny.


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

That man needs a name, old bean. It's not sporting to leave him nameless! He didn't spend all that time punting and snogging to be a common bloke, gov! Lorry! Loo! Bubbles and squeak! Toast racks!

I think I've spent my readily available Britishism for the night.


message 17: by Eric (last edited Jun 27, 2011 10:02PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric Winston is too obvious, though it's his radio-sharpened voice I hear in my head. Pynchon noted that Ike's voice is indistinguishable from Clark Gable's...which is spooky and spot-on...and we're back to the South. Did you know that the Daughters of the Confederacy wanted to raise a Mammy Monument, in DC, to the Loyal Slaves of The South? The planned statue was a rotund, kerchief'd house slave, with white yunguns gathered reverently about. The Senate ok'd funding 1933, but the measure died in the House.


Boots "Wikipedia says he wrote mostly for children and young people."

i read burchard's book as a teenager and however reductive the text is, one cannot underestimate the power of a simple narrative that tells an extraordinary story. it is easy to criticize history for its inaccuracies, but i personally owe a debt to burchard for writing the book that was a gateway drug for my Civil War passion.


message 19: by A.J. (new)

A.J. Howard Great review.

I recently finished the first volume of Foote's Civil War narrative and I feel compelled to say some words in his, or at least the book's, defense. The problem with Foote isn't that he's biased on one side or the other. In fact, I think a lot of people have problems with him because he is pretty neutral in his treatment of the South. My perception is that he is susceptible to criticism because by not dwelling on slavery and the rabid racism of the Confederacy, he is ignoring the elephant in the room.

My contention is that this is an issue, but not a big one. Foote isn't a historian, in the proper sense of the term. Jon Meacham calls him the American Homer, and that makes sense to me. Foote's narrative is more epic than traditional history, almost more Tolkien than McPherson.

I think Foote's racial prejudice, like many of his generation, is somewhat tribal. What I mean by that is that there are some people who may not identify themselves as prejudiced, but who will always identify other races, ethnicities, religions, etc. as some category of 'other.' They are similar to their conception of 'us,' but at the same time apart. It's not so much that Foote is unsympathetic with the struggles and tribulations of African Americans, it's that he isn't really interested in telling their story.

This is a problem, but it would be a greater one if he was an academic historian. I can forgive this issue because the man can write like a motherfucker. Foote's narrative, more than any other non-fiction piece of prose, should be approached as a work of fiction. Foote's writing is sublime and on his prose is above criticism. Forgive his sins, or don't but read him anyways. It's worth it.


message 20: by Eric (last edited Jun 29, 2011 08:15AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric A.J. wrote: ...the man can write like a motherfucker

That's why I Iook forward to his Narrative. The few pages I've sampled are astounding. His account of the burning of Columbia S.C. is especially memorable...Sherman waking to the shadowplay of flames on the wall of his room. But no prose stylist alive or dead could convince me to see Lincoln and Forrest as equals, though I have little doubt Foote will permit me a few hours in which I marvel disinterestedly at certain of the latter's feats (the icy river fording escape from Fort Donelson, just as Grant closed in for the kill, etc.); and that will be achievement. I think a lack of interest in the black freedom struggle of the Civil War does imply a lack of sympathy; and such lack of interest seems pretty damning in anyone who sets out to describe that war in nonfiction prose whether they hold pretensions to academic comprehensiveness or not. But I'm going to strangle a negative opinion of Foote in its crib, because I haven't read him.


message 21: by Matt (new)

Matt Eric wrote: "A.J. wrote: ...the man can write like a motherfucker

That's why I Iook forward to his Narrative. The few pages I've sampled are astounding. His account of the burning of Columbia S.C. is especiall..."



A.J.'s right: Foote can write like nobody's business. Reading his Narrative was one of the most pleasurable literary experiences of my life.

Still, I think the very fact that Foote's take is so Homer-esque, and so widely read, is a bit insidious. The Civil War wasn't a contest of moral equals, as much as Foote tries to make it so.

I'm also concerned with Foote's post-Narrative comments that he would fight for the Confederacy (it's hard to blame a 19th-century dirt-farming Arkansas yokel for going to war for the slaveocracy, convinced he was fighting for State's rights; Foote, on the other hand, should know better); that Bedford Forrest was somehow Lincoln's intellectual/historical equal; and that slavery and emancipation were the two great evils of the Civil War.

A great interview with the man http://www.theparisreview.org/intervi....

Anyway, nothing takes away from the fact that Foote created a genuine, lasting masterpiece.


message 22: by M. D. (new)

M. D.  Hudson Terrific review. I thought a few stanzas from Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" was appropriate here as a coda of sorts:

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/pr...

...shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die--
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.


message 23: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Dang, that's a hot review.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die--


I was going to quote that too - such a great poem.

Slate magazine (yeah I know, Slate) had an article on the Burns/Foote phenomenon, but it's not as devastating as I remembered: http://www.slate.com/id/2295509/pagen...


message 24: by Eric (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eric Thanks M.D. and Moira! ...at the dedication,/ William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe. Love that line! James' dedication speech is beautiful:

http://college.holycross.edu/faculty/...

The men who do brave deeds are usually unconscious of their picturesqueness. For two nights previous to the assault upon Fort Wagner, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment had been afoot, making forced marches in the rain; and on the day of the battle the men had had no food since early morning. As they lay there in the evening twilight, hungry and wet, against the cold sands of Morris Island, with the sea-fog drifting over them, their eyes fixed on the huge bulk of the fortress looming darkly three-quarters of a mile ahead against the sky, and their hearts beating in expectation of the word that was to bring them to their feet and launch them on their desperate charge, neither officers nor men could have been in any holiday mood of contemplation.

...

How soon, indeed, are human things forgotten! As we meet here this morning, the Southern sun is shining on their place of burial, and the waves sparkling and the sea-gulls circling around Fort Wagner's ancient site. But the great earthworks and their thundering cannon, the commanders and their followers, the wild assault and repulse that for a brief space made night hideous on that far-off evening, have all sunk into the blue gulf of the past, and for the majority of this generation are hardly more than an abstract name, a picture, a tale that is told. Only when some yellow-bleached photograph of a soldier of the 'sixties comes into our hands, with that odd and vivid look of individuality due to the moment when it was taken, do we realize the concreteness of that by-gone history, and feel how interminable to the actors in them were those leaden-footed hours and years.


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