Was Robert Gould Shaw an Abolitionist?

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?

Stay tuned.

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9 comments… add one
  • Bex Jan 13, 2018 @ 7:43

    This is a good article but you miss a few key points here and I think you are a little harsh on Shaw too. I read Blue Eyed Child of Fortune and while he wasn’t a dedicated abolitionist (at least to the extent that his parents were) from what I have seen there is actually a fair amount of evidence that Shaw supported black troops and was enthusiastic about their use, even if at first he only saw them as practical use for the Union. Something a lot of historians fail to mention these days is that in 1862, Shaw desired to become an officer for a black regiment, keep in mind that this was before he ‘saw the elephant’ with the 2nd Massachusetts. He traveled to Washington with his influential friend, abolitionist Morris Copeland to discuss plans for a black regiment. The project failed however as Stanton rejected such an idea.

    As well as this, there is also Shaw’s letter to his father in which he appears to support racial integration of the Union army, a measure not introduced until the 20th century and in his first letter since his acceptance of the 54th, he pours out support for black troops, arguing that those not brave enough to fight should not place obstacles in the way of black men going to fight for them. Of course Shaw would need to spend time with his men before he saw them as more than just a ‘weapon’ for the Union cause.

    In a response to a comment you made, yes Shaw knew that being killed by Confederates on the battlefield was a possibility but becoming a POW was quite different. During his time with the 2nd several of Shaw’s friends were captured but they were generally treated well by their Confederate captors and released. This changed after the Emancipation Proclamation however when POWs were sent of often cruel prison camps. It probably would have been worse for Shaw however, who would have been seen as a ‘white traitor’, especially considering the way his corpse was treated by the Confederates after Fort Wagner. If captured he could have been executed or at least treated worse than his fellow prisoners. When he took command of the 54th he had a right to be worried about this possibility and knew what stakes were involved.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 13, 2018 @ 7:55

      Great points. I am aware of both examples you cite. Shaw does talk about his trip to Washington, but there is very little that I would characterize as “enthusiastic” in terms of Shaw’s attitude toward the use of black soldiers before 1863. One of the things that I find interesting and that I need to think about more carefully are his limited references to African Americans before 1863 alongside the many critical things he had to say about Irish recruits. In some respects African Americans and the Irish occupied the same space for Shaw.

      You said: “Of course Shaw would need to spend time with his men before he saw them as more than just a ‘weapon’ for the Union cause..”

      I am not convinced at this point that Shaw ever viewed black soldiers as signaling a fundamental shift in the Union cause. Of course, I may have to revise that view as I continue to read and think through these questions.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Bex Jan 13, 2018 @ 8:47

        Thanks for your reply.

        I politely disagree with your last point given Shaw’s outspoken support of black troops, as well as his desire to see them do battle ‘to prove them men’, and his anger that they were not being treated equally to white troops in his 1863 letters. But yeah, he definitely had a long way to go to get to that point and he still shared racist views on black troops, especially the contraband regiments, in fact he often boasted that his regiment was superior to them!

  • David Kent Dec 13, 2017 @ 3:38

    Knowing that, as an officer of a black regiment, he would be executed if captured, is the most telling thing about where his mind was. He may not have been screaming abolition from treetops, but you have to have definite ideas on the subject knowing you could only be killed or wounded. Great men all who volunteered to do this.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 13, 2017 @ 6:25

      Great men all who volunteered to do this.

      Just to be clear, I am not suggesting one way or the other whether Shaw should be praised for his decision to take command of a black regiment. I am interested in how best to interpret his evolution during the war on a number of fronts. Shaw didn’t need to take command to understand the risks of death at the hands of Confederates. He came close to being killed on the battlefield more than once.

  • Joshism Dec 12, 2017 @ 20:20

    What do we know about Shaw’s family’s attitudes on the subject of abolition?

    You noted that Shaw says little in his letters that would indicate he was an abolitionist, or that he would be the kind of man to volunteer to command a black regiment. Conversely, does he say anything that would indicate he was racist against blacks? That he would acknowledge they could make good soldiers, and more disciplined than some whites, would be a more progressive view than most of his contemporaries at the start of the war.

    While the most likely explanation is that Shaw’s views evolved during the war, this discussion does raise a curious possibility: the concept of “quiet abolitionists.” Whites who held moderate or even progressive views on race at the time and wanted an end to slavery, but didn’t write or talk about that belief very much. We live in a very loud age where political opinions tend to be very out in the open, even (perhaps especially) controversial/polarizing ones. Yet we have the old adage about not talking politics (or religion) in polite company. Even if you favored abolition, the actions of people like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown are the sort of thing that don’t really encourage everyone who agrees with their core principle to be open about it. Of course, failure to express opinions means no paper trail for historians, especially in the absence of modern polling of the masses. And it also all depends how rigidly you define “abolitionist.”

  • Frank Carmack Dec 12, 2017 @ 5:43

    Having participated in the filming of GLORY, I too was deeply interested in Robert Gould Shaw’s character. At the Battle of Antietam, the movie portrays him as a line officer,which is incorrect. At that time he was a staff officer; NOT in command of a company. As the movie portrays, a young man of 24 becomes a seasoned leader of men on a crusade of liberation.

    The scene in the movie in which the 54th MA turn down their pay is also misrepresented. Since black soldiers were paid less than white soldiers, they did not want it to be seen as a matter of money, which is a point of honor, NOT about receiving less pay. To his credit, Shaw joinhishis command’s point of honor

    I became more interested in the make-up of the 54th Mass. Since Massachusetts didn’t have the approximately 1,000 men in state to form a regiment, appeals went out to nearby Northern states for “free men of color”; NY, PA, OH, etc, to provide companies(ap 100 men). A fellow re-enactor(a Military History major at Ohio State University) and I helped prepare a group of Black students from OSU to portray part of one of the companies in the movie version of 54th MA. Through company rosters I was able to track down the approximate addresses of several members of the original Company G(I believe), 54th MA. Many were well-educated business owners, craftsmen and laborers. Several were recently liberated slaves, via the Underground Railroad, making their way to Ohio and beyond.
    The group of students from OSU were sponsored by the University and organized by Dr Stan Karl(sp), Professor of English.He taught a class in the American Civil War, as expressed in American Literature. We all drove “in caravan” to Jeckyl Island where the scenes portraying Battery Wagner were filmed.

    The 2 weeks I participated in GLORY filled me with a sense of dignity, humbleness and honor for those brave souls, white and black, who stood up in the face of tyranny. May their service and sacrifice serve as a reminder to us in these times fraught with anxiety.


    Frank F Carmack

    former member of 36th VA and 49th OH reenactment groups

  • Louis Drew Dec 12, 2017 @ 4:40

    Very interesting and thought-provoking. I look forward to subsequent comments. Thank you, Mr. Levin.

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