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.