Captain Robert Gould Shaw, 2nd Mass: A Reading List

I’ve spent the better part of the past few weeks reading as much as I can about Robert Gould Shaw and taking extensive notes. In addition to books about the Civil War I have been thinking about how to go about writing and structuring a biography, which I have never written before. Historian and biographer T.J. Stiles recently shared some thoughts with me about the genre. I am a big fan of his books, particularly his biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Already I can see that one of the phases overlooked in Shaw’s military career is his time as Captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment. Not surprisingly, most people interested in Shaw focus on his very brief time as Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. There is at times almost an assumption of inevitability that Shaw was destined to command the first black unit raised in the North in early 1863. No doubt the decision on the part of the producers of the movie Glory to offer little more than a fleeting glimpse of his time in the 2nd Mass. helped to solidify this impression.

It is impossible to understand Shaw’s brief time with the 54th Mass. without careful study of this earlier phase, beginning in the summer of 1861 and extending to early 1863. Shaw learned the art of command, experienced his first battles, framed his understanding of the war, and formed close relationships during this period. Here is what I am currently reading to better understand this phase.

Obviously, you have to start with his published letters collected by Russell Duncan in Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune. The introduction is extensive and his editing is very helpful in identifying various individuals, etc. Duncan did not publish all of Shaw’s correspondence, but it still offers a clear window into his outlook on any number of issues. Duncan’s biography is also worth reading, but it is little more than an extended version of his introduction to the letters. It is one of the reasons I am undertaking this project.

Shaw maintained close ties with family members throughout the war. I just finished reading Lorien Foote’s biography of his father, Frank Shaw, and I am waiting on Joan Waugh’s biography of his sister, Josephine Shaw Lowell. Foote’s biography challenges the assumption that Shaw’s mother extended the most influence over him, especially his eventual decision to accept command of the 54th. Even more interesting is the disconnect explored by Foote between how Shaw and his parents viewed the war. In contrast with his parents Shaw rarely mentioned slavery and emancipation in his early correspondence. In that sense he fits in neatly with the broad swath of recruits who volunteered to fight for the nation. There are numerous books on northern attitudes toward the war, but Earl Hess’s Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union remains one of the best and one of my favorite books by this prolific author.

A couple of books have been very helpful in thinking about Shaw as company commander. I am rereading Lorien Foote’s The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army, to better understand the challenges that Shaw faced interacting and commanding men from very different social and cultural backgrounds. Andrew Bledsoe’s Citizen-Officers is also very helpful on this score. Much has been made of Shaw’s evolving attitudes on race in 1863, but this must be placed within the broader context of his perceptions of Irish recruits and a general overriding concern with the discipline of common men that he believed lacked character. Carol Bundy’s biography of Charles Russell Lowell is helpful in better understanding the challenges that elite New Englanders faced in assuming command of citizen soldiers.

There is no unit history for the 2nd Mass., but a number of Shaw’s peers from Harvard served in the 20th Mass. I am hoping to gain some insight into this specific group of men in Richard Miller’s Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Finally, though it is more about mourning and the memory of the war Frances Clarke’s War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North also offers important insights into the culture of elite Bostonians who fought through the war.

That’s about it for now. I will update my reading list as a I go along. This doesn’t include scholarly articles and other primary sources that I have already consulted. The first thing I am going to write for publication is a magazine piece on Shaw’s relationship with Col. James Montgomery while stationed on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia in the spring and early summer of 1863. Once again Glory frames much of our popular understanding concerning this relationship. While the movie does a good job portraying the Darien Raid it completely botches their relationship, which evolved and can only be understood within the context of Shaw’s experiences with the 2nd Mass. Let’s just say for now that Shaw deeply admired the man.

Feel free to offer reading suggestions below.

19 comments… add one
  • Very, very interesting. I’m eager to read more!

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  • The 20th Mass. officers tended to be Democrats, so I am not sure if they reflect Shaw’s milieu.

    BTW, about 4 out of ten enlisted men in the 20th were immigrants. I never knew so many men born in Ireland and Germany went to Harvard.

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    • That’s a good point re: political affiliation, but I am also interested in how ideas of manhood and duty played out among this class in the ranks.

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      • I’ve portrayed the late Colonel for 12 years. Recently retired from doing so. Contact me for insight if you wish.

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  • James Montgomery?

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    • Thanks. That’s what happens when you rush.

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      • Saw Glory at a Lawrence, KS. movie house; there were audible hisses when Montgomery appeared on the scene.

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        • Now that is interesting. Thanks for sharing. What year did you see it?

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          • It was the week it opened.

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            • Thanks for the follow up.

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  • Kevin, you might wish to look at Colonel George Gordon’s From Brook Farm to Cedar Mountain. It’s about the 2nd Mass in the early part of the conflict, i.e Shaw’s time with the regiment. I’ve used it a great deal on my project about the African American quest for freedom in the Valley during the Civil War. I believe you’ll find it a useful source. Best of luck with your project.

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    • Hi Jonathan,

      I’ve got it on my list. I also have access to his personal papers in nearby Framingham.

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  • Glad to see you looking at Carol Bundy’s The Nature of Sacrifice. Family connections account for a lot of actions during mid-19th c America. Waugh’s forthcoming volume on Effie Shaw will likely have great relevance.I am also intrigued by Lorien Foote’s book but haven’t found a copy yet, Along with these family influences, I suspect you may find similar insights looking through the letters of Richard Cary and John Murray Forbes.

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    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for the suggestions.

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  • If you haven’t gotten hold of it yet, Hope and Glory, Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment is also a very good source and contains a very insightful essay by Joan Waugh. It primarily concerns the relationship between Robert and his parents but also goes into detail about how his time in the 2nd Massachusetts impacted his refusal and ultimate acceptance of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Her essay is also fascinating for the way she discusses the role of women such as Sarah Shaw during the war.

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    • It’s an excellent essay. I also highly recommend her biography of Josephine Shaw Lowell.

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      • I have been trying to get hold of it but I live in the UK and it is (as are many American Civil War books) very expensive and difficult to obtain here. I just have to wait until the price goes down I suppose 🙁 I have read bits and pieces of it online and from what I have seen it seems very good, I would really like to buy the whole book if I can though.

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  • Sounds like a great project, Kevin. You might find useful Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai’s _Northern Character: College-Educated New Englanders, Honor, Nationalism, and Leadership in the Civil War Era_, which examines in detail the antebellum and wartime lives of several dozen men like Shaw (I can’t recall if Shaw himself is included). Also, Douglass Egerton’s _Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America_ includes extended discussion of Shaw, including a brief section on his time in the 7th NY and 2nd MA.

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    • Hi Ian. Great to hear from you. Egerton’s book is wonderful and thank for reminding me of K’s book.

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