Yesterday I sent off a proposal for what I hope will be my next book, tentatively titled A Glorious Fate: The Life and Legacy of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. This is a project that I began a few years ago, but ended up putting it aside for a number of reasons. I very much regret that decision.
It’s been roughly 20 years since the publication of Russell Duncan’s Where Death and Glory Meet: Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. At just over 120 pages the book offers little more than what Duncan wrote as the introduction for the collection of Shaw’s Civil War letters that he published in 1992. Duncan’s biography is well worth reading, but the chapters are very short, which makes it difficult to fully explore key aspects of Shaw’s military career.
We’ve also seen a good deal of new scholarship over the past two decades related to the history of United States Colored Troops, the politics of command in the Union army, and the evolution of violence during the first half of the war. I am also very interested in exploring the eight weeks that Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts spent along the Sea Coast Islands in South Carolina and Georgia. Their time there offers an opportunity to explore the opening chapters of Reconstruction in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment.
There is no way around the fact that the Hollywood movie “Glory” colors how many people understand Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts. One of the things that I hope to challenge is the assumption of inevitability surrounding Shaw’s decision to accept command of the regiment. As I point out in the proposal, if the war had ended before the end of 1862, Shaw would have celebrated having helped to preserve the Union, even with slavery still partially intact.
The book will also thoroughly examine Shaw’s early military career. Shaw spent roughly six months in command of Black soldiers in 1863, but his evolving relationship with these men and how it altered his understanding of the war cannot be understood without closely examining his first two years in the army.
The book will also explore postwar commemorations of Shaw, including the dedication of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial on the Boston Common. I am particularly interested in early efforts from within Boston’s Black community and elsewhere to honor Shaw, which must be understood as part of a broader effort to challenge discrimination and achieve civil rights through the acknowledgment of Black military service and sacrifice.
This is an opportune moment for a new biography of Shaw. Interest in Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts remains high. In December 2019 the movie Glory marked its 30th anniversary with a limited release in movie theaters across the country. In September 2020 the movie was added to the Netflix catalog.
The discovery of the battle sword that Shaw carried at Battery Wagner resurfaced in 2017 and was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where it is on permanent display. Finally, the restoration of Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to Shaw and his men on the Boston Common is expected to be completed later this year. The unveiling of the restored memorial will likely receive extensive national media coverage.