At the Heart of the Story of Robert Gould Shaw

One of the most difficult challenges in writing a biography is convincing your reader to care about the subject. Admittedly, I have struggled with this over the course of my research and writing about Robert Gould Shaw. What makes his story worth telling again and why should anyone care?

In fact, a number of my friends in my book writing group highlighted this weakness while commenting on the first chapter of the manuscript. I am still plugging away, but I am finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

Most people are aware that Robert grew up in a family of reformers. Both his parents were committed abolitionists, but their reform efforts extended way beyond the concern for the enslaved. Francis and Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw petitioned the federal government to end slavery in the 1840s, they supported Boston’s vigilance committee, and during the war financed support for the newly freedmen in the South. But for all their abolitionist zeal, the Shaws had very little contact with African American activists in Boston and elsewhere. In fact, their home on Beacon Street in Boston, where Robert lived for his first few years, was just a few blocks from one of the most active Black abolitionist communities anywhere in the United States.

This should not come as too much of a surprise. Many white abolitionists may have vigorously campaigned to end slavery, but they were not necessarily willing to interact publicly and even less so, privately, with African Americans. I have yet to find much of any evidence of any member of the Shaw family coming into close personal contact with African Americans before the Civil War.

In 1842 the family moved to the Boston suburb of West Roxbury to be close to the new experimental community of Brook Farm. From there they moved to Staten Island, followed by a family trip to Europe in the early 1850s. In short, the Shaws lived and interacted within a relatively small circle of friends that shared their reform commitments and, just as importantly, their elite status.

Robert was even more removed from direct contact with Black Bostonians who escaped slavery and the broader community throughout his childhood and teenage years. As many of you know, he never fully embraced his parent’s abolitionist beliefs; in fact, in one early letter to his mother, Robert explicitly rejected embracing his parent’s reform efforts as his own. He certainly followed the sectional debates over slavery, read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and believed that slavery was a moral abomination, but Robert hoped to find his own path. At one point he considered farming, joining the military, and a career in business.

Robert did not see emancipation as the ultimate goal of the war at the outset, but it was the war itself (much more so than anything he learned from his parents) that ultimately set him down the path that led to the command of the 54th. But even this was not inevitable. As I have said before, had the war ended by the end of 1862, Robert would have celebrated the war’s success with the preservation of the Union, the defeat of the slaveholding aristocracy, and the opportunity to get on with his privileged life.

Even in command of Black men Robert harbored doubts about their fighting ability and whether he had made the right decision. Robert was still evolving as he led the assault on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. His parents belief in racial and political equality tell us very little about how Robert may have understood civil rights and the scope of Reconstruction by the time of his untimely death.

In contrast with his abolitionist parents, it was Robert who experienced a companionship and familiarity with African Americans as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry–a level of closeness that was inconceivable by Francis and Sarah and many white Americans before and even during the war. Robert ultimately perished in battle and was buried in a mass grave alongside Black men.

It was the war that placed Shaw in this unlikely position and not any firm abolitionist commitments passed down by his parents. This is an important distinction because I think it helps us to better appreciate the extent to which the grinding nature and exigency of war placed the nation in a position to have to face the reality of emancipation and Black military service for the first time.

Shaw is part of this messy and complex narrative that culminated in both the achievements in civil rights legislation after the war and the rise of Jim Crow.

I hope this gives you some sense of where I am going, though admittedly it is still sketchy.

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14 comments… add one
  • Matt McKeon Jan 20, 2022 @ 15:56

    Forten had a relationship, if a chaste one, with the surgeon of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers(renamed the 33rd USCT) Dr. Seth Rogers. Her diary is fascinating on this point.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2022 @ 15:58

      It is indeed.

  • Suzanne Crockett Jan 18, 2022 @ 2:59

    When Shaw returns home in *Glory* following Antietam, there is a reception with Frederick Douglas in attendance. And it is here we meet Thomas Searles, the free black friend of Shaw and Cabot Forbes. Your research seems not to support Shaw’s family knowing either of these men. Why do you think they were presented this way? Perhaps a motivation similar to the way training of the 54th Massachusetts at Camp Meigs was misrepresented? Maybe there just isn’t enough time in a two hour & two minute movie to get it all in.
    I love *Glory* and loved teaching it. Looking forward to your Shaw biography even more now – sounds like it could be the basis for a documentary.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 18, 2022 @ 3:20

      I am going to try to write something today to clarify some of these points. Stay tuned. There is no evidence that RGS friended a single African Americans during his childhood or at any point before the war. GLORY originally included a scene depicting Shaw, Forbes, and Searles as young boys at Brook Farm, but I can find no evidence of Black participation Francis Shaw was president of the National Freedmen’s Relief Association during the war so he definitely would have interacted with Black men and women. As you will see in today’s post, however, it raises some interesting questions.

      • Suzanne Crockett Jan 18, 2022 @ 3:26

        👍👏

  • K Grant Jan 17, 2022 @ 10:03

    In the past few years I’ve noticed a new response to Shaw from my 10th-grade US History students that is very much informed by 21st-century politics. Students are quick to say his notoriety is due to a “white savior complex” –even though, as you are very clear here, that was not certainly his intent. I will have my students read this. Looking forward to the biography!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2022 @ 10:16

      I think this observation is certainly true of the Hollywood movie GLORY. Thanks for sharing this with me.

      • K Grant Jan 17, 2022 @ 10:34

        Curious… would you show Glory to high school students? I love _Killer Angels_ if I’m assigning a novel, but for a not-strictly-documentary film, I’ve not found one that I think is better than Glory, even w/ its faults.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2022 @ 11:46

          Absolutely, but it is important for students to understand where history and Hollywood intersect in GLORY. I wrote this a couple years ago, which should give you a sense of what I mean.

        • Matt McKeon Jan 18, 2022 @ 16:08

          I show Glory most years I teach the Civil War.

  • Glenn Brasher Jan 17, 2022 @ 5:24

    Personally, I’ve always wondered about how much Charlotte Forten figured into his trajectory. Of course that still fits into your interpetive frame, as the war is what brought them together, ever-so fleetingly.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2022 @ 5:30

      Hi Glenn,

      Great to hear from you. I share your curiosity, though I wish there was more evidence to work with. Certainly CF thought very highly of Shaw, but I also think it is pretty clear that this is where it ended. Shaw’s time along the Sea Islands is absolutely central to this interpretive framing. Thanks for the comment.

      • Glenn Brasher Jan 17, 2022 @ 5:40

        Yes, it is frustrating that there is so little evidence regarding their time together and what was said between them. (I think there’s probably a good reason for that, but that’s just me). I don’t mean to suggest that there was definitely “more” between them than friendship, but wouldn’t you love to have heard their conversations and the topics they explored? But alas.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2022 @ 5:43

          I completely agree. It could be interesting fodder for a work of historical fiction.

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