Robert Gould Shaw Project Update

I’ve made steady progress with my research project on Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. It’s exciting how research can transform what you thought you knew about a historical subject or individual. Often it reveals how little you know.

The research process can also steer you toward a different book idea altogether.

From the beginning I’ve been using Shaw’s relatively brief military career to explore larger issues related to the Civil War. Like countless others, the progress of the war challenged Shaw’s understanding of race, emancipation, and Union.

The period in Shaw’s military career that I have kept coming back to is his time in and around Port Royal, South Carolina between June-July 1863 with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Shaw and his men found themselves in the middle of a radical experiment organized by the military and hundreds of northern reformers or “Gideonites” who aided thousands of enslaved people in their transition from slavery to freedom.

The story of Shaw and his men alone is fascinating, but I am even more interested with his interactions with other people from very different backgrounds, who also found themselves on the Sea Coast Islands during the war. Shaw was not the only one impacted by and whose life was significantly changed as a result of the Port Royal Experiment.

Turns out that place or how and why various people converged on a particular place is (and has long been) my primary interest. My book writing group reviewed my book proposal last week and in our online meeting on Friday night kept coming back to Port Royal. They encouraged me to see that this is the book I should write. I think I needed them to finally push me over the edge to embrace this fact. But how to proceed?

I used much of my weekend to sketch out different narrative structures, but one possibility is to try to tell this story through the lives of a small number of people who found their way to Port Royal at different points during the war and how their lives converged in the summer of 1863. It will also explore how Port Royal influenced the course of their respective futures.

It’s a story about how the course of the war & the earliest years of Reconstruction in South Carolina shaped individual lives and how these very same people contributed to the larger narrative. The story might include the following:

  • Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, 54th Mass.
  • Corporal James Henry Gooding, 54th Mass.
  • Charlotte Forten, African American reformer from Philadelphia
  • Colonel James Montgomery, Col. 2nd SC (black regiment)
  • Confederate General Johnson Hagood
  • Port Royal slave/freedmen, TBD
  • Corporal James Henry Gooding, 54th Mass.
  • Northern reformer, TBD (perhaps Laura Towne, Ellen Murray, or Rachel Mather)

Other possibilities include Susie King Taylor, Hastings Gantt, George E. Stephens (54th MVI), and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Some of these individuals interacted directly with one another. For those of you familiar with the movie Glory the connection between Shaw and Montgomery is the most obvious. There are still questions about the nature of the relationship between Shaw and Forten. Others had no direct contact with- or were only vaguely familiar with one another, but their choices and actions taken in the same place during the summer of 1863 impacted all.

The list will likely change, but I am excited about the way this project has evolved. I’ve never visited Port Royal and the new Reconstruction Era National Park so that will be my first research stop once it is again safe to travel.

Let me know what you think.

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26 comments… add one
  • Allison Thomas Apr 28, 2020 @ 20:14

    This book sounds fabulous. I would vote for Thomas Higginson, such a fascinating guy. But all of these folks sound like they shed light on the many facets of this conflict. Can’t wait….

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2020 @ 3:12

      Hi Allison,

      Thanks for the enthusiastic response. Higginson is a fascinating character. He will most certainly figure into this story in some shape or form.

      • Matt McKeon Apr 29, 2020 @ 9:13

        He was Emily Dickinson’s somewhat baffled editor.

  • MaryDee Apr 28, 2020 @ 11:30

    Sounds exciting! You have a customer here!

    • Kevin Levin Apr 28, 2020 @ 11:55

      Wonderful. Thanks for the enthusiastic response.

  • Matt McKeon Apr 28, 2020 @ 5:50

    I recall that a army surgeon, either with the 33rd USCT or the 54th named Seth Rogers kept a diary which included his contacts and relationships with many of the people you mention above, during this time. T.W. Higginson’s “Army Life in a Black Regiment” you are doubtlessly already familiar with. His successor, Charles Trowbridge led the 33th into postwar SC, this may be outside your scope, but he left an interesting account of that time.

    There was a recent book “Firebrands of Liberty: dealt with this subject as well. This work featured Edward Pierce, also involved in the Port Royal Experiment.

    Best quote IMO: Rufus Saxton, C.O. of the Dept. of the South to the umpteeth inquiry about the new regiment of black soldiers. “They are intensely human.”

  • Vince Slaugh Apr 27, 2020 @ 16:37

    Sounds like a great project and a fascinating context. Good luck! In case it’s helpful, here are scans of letters from a soldier in the 76th Pennsylvania who reported what he saw to the hometown newspaper:

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 17:15

      Thanks so much for sharing this with me, Vince.

  • Meg Groeling Apr 27, 2020 @ 10:04

    Nowhere near enough work has been done on Susie King Taylor. May I suggest Steve Restelli–photographer–for images? Emerging Civil War let us present a sort of photo essay on her last year. Same goes for Higginson. I read his diary–how to reconcile 2020 with the 1860s–always a worthwhile challenge. I am very excited about this new book. Huzzah!!

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 10:07

      SKG is definitely under consideration. A number of factors will influence the final list. Thanks, Meg.

  • Thomas Doughton Apr 27, 2020 @ 9:57

    You might want to consider two things: first, a major of the enlistees in the 54th & 55th regiments were not Massachusetts residents, Mass, men a minority of both units; and, how many men were of Native origin, their families enumerated in the so-called Earle Report

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 10:07

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I am well aware of the fact that a majority of the enlisted men in those units were raised outside of Massachusetts.

  • Roy White Apr 27, 2020 @ 7:01

    Very interesting. And I wonder at the relationships between white officers who commanded black soldiers in the post-war period. Reconstruction went off the rails when Johnson ordered Union troops to vacate the South, and allowed former Confederates to fairly quickly dominate the southern state governments. Black legislators were pushed out. The black population suffered from the rage and wounded pride of white southerners. And the north was more interested in reconciliation and moving on–ignoring its own racism that maintained the idea that whites were superior to blacks. The white officers who commanded black troops: did they revert to a racist point of view or were they advocates of seeing that blacks, particularly those who served in the Union cause, had their Constitutional rights recognized? I would be interested in how these relationships survived or changed. May be something for another book rather than this one.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 7:20

      Hi Roy. I highly recommend Barbara Gannon’s book, “The Won Cause” (UNC Press) which does a great job of exploring these relationships in connection with the Grand Army of the Republic.

      • Roy White Apr 27, 2020 @ 9:30

        Thank you. I will order Barbara Gannon’s book, today.

  • Jeremy Apr 27, 2020 @ 5:03

    Sounds interestng! I look forward to reading it, I’ve enjoyed your other two books.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 6:55

      Thanks, Jeremy.

  • Michael Apr 27, 2020 @ 4:22

    That sounds wonderful. I wonder why the first AA units converge in this specific location?? Why not transfer them to the AOP? Or the Western Armies? I may be asking questions you already know? Just wondering if you could provide some insight?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 4:34

      Hi Michael,

      First, thanks for the enthusiastic response. I am not sure what question you are getting at. We are only talking about a relatively few black regiments in this area. There were others serving in other theaters of operation.

      • Michael Apr 27, 2020 @ 6:39

        I know throughout the conflict there are several USCT and other AA volunteer units serving throughout the country. Did the initial AA units serve principally in this area? Like the 54th Mass, 55th Mass, etc?

        • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 6:54

          Yes, the 54th and 55th saw action in SC, GA, and FL. The 54th was also stationed in SC through December 1865 before they returned home to Boston to muster out. There were others as well.

  • Chris Barry Apr 27, 2020 @ 4:02

    Sounds great!

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 4:10

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the enthusiastic response.

  • tomchurchill3 Apr 27, 2020 @ 4:02

    If you would like a tour guide, I grew up in Beaufort and spent a lot of time in areas not knowing there was such a connection to reconstruction. It is awesome to see the Park in existence and bringing the items into view. I used to play near a tree on the Naval Hospital grounds, not realizing it was known as the Proclamation Tree or that there had been a Union Camp there 120 years before hand. So much of that is throughout Beaufort.

    And if nothing else, I’d be glad to buy you a round.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2020 @ 4:10

      Hi Tom,

      I will definitely keep you in mind. Thanks so much for the kind offer.

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