Robert Gould Shaw and the Biographer’s Challenge

One of the many things I am enjoying as I research and write about Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is the sheer volume of source material that is readily available. His personal letters stretching back to the early 1850s have been catalogued and digitized by Harvard University. Most of his wartime letters have been published by Russell Duncan.

Family correspondence helps to round out the picture of young Shaw. Wartime letters from Shaw’s friends and colleagues in the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment provide context for how his understanding of the war evolved. Not surprisingly, the coverage of Shaw expanded greatly once he took command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He has remained a touchstone of Civil War memory ever since he fell at the foot of Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw  and Matthew Broderick in the movie “Glory.”

But for all of the available sources I find Shaw to be an elusive figure. The timing of his death renders him a work-in-progress. This stands in sharp contrast with the Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common and the Hollywood movie “Glory” which reinforce a fitting end to a life well lived. In the former we see Shaw riding on horseback leading his men through Boston to what we all know awaits them and in the case of the latter we see a white officer buried alongside his black soldiers in a mass grave. There are no loose ends.

Shaw’s death in the middle of the war makes it easy for us to manipulate his memory for our own purposes. His malleability in memory is a challenge for someone new to writing biography. I find myself trying to push away the last six months of Shaw’s life as the colonel of a black regiment for the purposes of better understanding the questions that remained unresolved about the war through the end of 1862.

Many of his questions about the purpose of the war and the way in which the war was already upending assumptions about race and race relations became even more intractable during those final months.

I tend not to dwell on counterfactuals around Shaw surviving the assault at Battery Wagner and the war, but they are instructive in his case. Would Shaw have campaigned for equal pay for his men? Would Shaw have welcomed the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution? Would he have embraced political and social equality between the races after the war? These counterfactual questions are helpful because they can’t be answered.

Reminding myself that they can’t be answered has helped me at times to refocus on the Shaw of history as opposed to the Shaw of historical memory. When it comes down to it, Shaw’s life is a story of loose ends, as was the war itself.

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10 comments… add one
  • Rob Wick Mar 13, 2021 @ 13:01

    Looked over Harvard’s collection. Definitely looks like you have a wealth of material. I can understand what you mean about the elusiveness of Shaw. Ida Tarbell’s papers (also digitized) are a treasure trove of material, yet with few exceptions they say very little about her personally. One biographer was told by a librarian at Allegheny College that they believed Tarbell or her sister likely burned the family correspondence when Tarbell first donated a portion to Allegheny and then after Tarbell’s death when the remainder arrived. Obviously that’s not the case with Shaw, but a wealth of material doesn’t necessarily translate into a crystal clear picture.

    Can’t wait to see what you produce Kevin. Hopefully, one of these days I can get something out there on Tarbell.


    • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2021 @ 13:14

      Hi Rob,

      It’s unfortunate that Tarbell’s personal correspondence hasn’t survived, but there are ways around it depending on the availability of other sources. Don’t give up.

  • Msb Mar 13, 2021 @ 10:35

    Excellent questions. Really looking forward to reading your book.
    As you know, of course, people’s views did evolve; George Thomas’s did, for example.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2021 @ 11:11

      Thanks. Make no mistake, I also believe that Shaw’s views on a number of issues evolved. Unfortunately, that evolution was much shorter given his early death.

  • David Searby Mar 12, 2021 @ 8:11

    My guess he was a very good man with some of the misunderstandings of race typical to his time.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2021 @ 9:45

      I don’t necessarily disagree.

  • Andy Hall Mar 12, 2021 @ 7:10

    “Shaw’s death in the middle of the war makes it easy for us to manipulate his memory for our own purposes.”

    A great and true observation. I’d argue that’s especially common on the other side of that conflict, with officers like Jackson, Stuart, and Johnston, where counterfactuals, “what might have been.” and “if only. . . .” are practically a cottage industry for some authors. They don’t generally contribute much to actual history.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2021 @ 9:46

      I agree. They tell us more about the person offering the counterfactual as opposed to anything having to do with history.

  • zcrockett53 Mar 12, 2021 @ 6:11

    Typo? “…someone knew to writing biography.”
    Otherwise 👍 Really looking forward to reading this.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2021 @ 6:13

      Thank you.

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