Glory is still one of my favorite movies, but like all Hollywood productions, there are places where it falls short in explaining the history or providing the proper historical context. Few Hollywood movies have had more of an influence on how we remember the Civil War and, specifically, the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, along with its young colonel, Robert Gould Shaw.
We tend to see Shaw’s command of the first black regiment raised in the North as inevitable. After all, he was born into a prominent abolitionist family. But having gone back to re-read his published letters, what stands out is how little he has to say about slavery, enslaved people, emancipation, and the possibility of raising black soldiers during the first year of the war. Such commentary is almost entirely absent.
His first passing reference to African Americans comes during his trip from Annapolis to Washington, D.C. as a member of the Seventh New York National Guards in April 1861. Shortly thereafter he enlisted in the Second Massachusetts Infantry. Even while encamped in and around Harpers Ferry, Shaw has little to say about slavery and abolitionism. He shares with family that he had seen the court room and jail cell in Charlestown, W.V., where John Brown’s trial was held. Shaw’s only comment about Brown in Harpers Ferry offers little more than a brief assessment of whether it was wise to defend the fire house.
On August 6, 1861 Shaw shared his thoughts about the possibility of raising an army of black soldiers:
Isn’t it extraordinary that the Government won’t make use of the instrument that would finish the war sooner than anything else,–viz, the slaves? I have no doubt they could give more information about the enemy than any one else, and that there would be nothing easier than to have a line of spies right into their camp. What a lick it would be at them, to call on all the blacks in the country to come and enlist in our army! They would probably make a fine army after a little drill, and could certainly be kept under better discipline than our independent Yankees. General [Nathaniel] Banks is reported to have said that this must be a war of extermination, or that we shall have to make an inglorious peace. It does not seem as if it need be so, if the Government would only make use of all its opportunities.
It’s a remarkable passage, both for what it reveals and for what it doesn’t reveal about Shaw. The call to enlist blacks in the army is a decidedly practical one for Shaw. It would undercut Confederate morale and “would finish the war sooner than anything else.” At first glance it may appear that Shaw praises the character of slaves in suggesting that it would only take “a little drill” to prepare them for the military life, but this needs to be understood as part of his world view as a member of Boston’s elite class. Shaw’s letters are littered with references to the undisciplined “independent Yankees,” as well as the Irish, which he clearly did not favor. For Shaw and other member of his class, the inability to properly discipline oneself as a proper gentleman did not necessarily fall along the color line.
There is very little in Shaw’s personal correspondence early in the war that points to his eventual command of the 54th. Much of what he does say about the war falls squarely on the preservation of the Union and the work of the generation that fought the American Revolution, which he would have been reminded of constantly in and around Boston.
This raises important questions about how we understand Shaw’s decision to take command of this unit and his own evolution while in command. Historians have rightly pointed to Shaw’s evolving commentary about the discipline of the men under his command as well as broader issues related to emancipation, but this has to be understood as part of a broader narrative. In short, his command cannot be understood apart from his first two years in the army. Much of what has been written about Shaw frames this early period as preparation for his brief time with the 54th, but we would do well to remember that there was nothing inevitable about this decision.
Is it accurate to describe Shaw as an abolitionist when he took command of the 54th? The short answer is NO. Was he an abolitionist at the time of his death during the failed assault at Battery Wagner in July 1863? Did he come to view emancipation as a central goal of the war? I don’t know. To what extent is Shaw’s martyrdom responsible for our memory of the fallen commander? What role did his mother play in shaping our memory of Robert Gould Shaw?