Blue-eyed Child of Fortune: Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw: Russell Duncan-Paperback – Illustrated, November 30 1999

“Any negro taken in arms against the Confederacy will immediately be returned to a state of slavery. Any negro taken in Federal uniform will be summarily put to death. Any white officer taken in command of negro troops shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection and shall likewise be put to death.”

Proclamation by the Confederate President

“Fondly do we hope—and fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'”

Abraham Lincoln

“There they march, warm-blooded champions of a better day for man. On horseback among them, in the very habit as he lived, sits the blue-eyed child of fortune.”

William James

“We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.”

Robert Gould Shaw

Like most people, I came to learn about the life of Robert Gould Shaw through the excellent film Glory.[1] The movie provides the viewer with a good introduction to the life of Robert Gould Shaw. It is the first feature film to show the role of black soldiers in the American Civil War. It has a degree of accuracy and historical worth that many other history-based films lack. It portrays black soldiers as courageous, along with their white officers.

Thanks to films like “Glory,” people are becoming far more aware of the role played by black soldiers in the American Civil War. Close to 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army, and black soldiers fought bravely and knew what they were fighting for. Blue-eyed Child of Fortune: Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is valuable in understanding why men fought and what ideals animated their actions.

In the introduction to the book, Duncan describes Shaw’s letters as showing “the change wrought by battlefield casualties, camp life, commitment, and homesickness upon the sensibilities of youth. His soldiering experience was as common as it was distinctive. His prose is often eloquent, always articulate, intensely informative, amusing, heart-wrenching, and provocative more than a century after he described himself in letters to his family and friends. As interlopers to words never meant for us to ponder, we can enjoy him and gain insight into his times and ours.”

During his military career, Shaw was a prolific letter writer. The letters in this book are intimate and give a deep insight into Shaw’s thinking. Writing to his mother, Shaw laments, “It is very hard to go off without bidding you goodbye, and the only thing that upsets me, in the least, is the thought of how you will feel when you find me so unexpectedly gone. But I know, dearest Mother, that you wouldn’t have me stay when it is so clearly my duty to go.… We all feel that if we can get into Washington before Virginia begins to make trouble, we shall not have much fighting…May God bless you all. When we are all at home together again, may peace & happiness be restored to the Country. The war has already done us good in making the North so united.”[2]

He wrote over two hundred letters, and they revealed a deeply divided and complex man. Despite being the pampered son of wealthy Boston abolitionists, Shaw was not a complete abolitionist at the beginning of the war. However, he later wrote, “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.” Despite this sentiment, Shaw never fully reconciled his prejudices about black inferiority. Still, he respected his soldiers’ spirit and fighting ability, and as the war proceeded, he stated, “There is not the least doubt that we shall leave the state, with as good a regiment, as any that has marched.”

As Duncan writes, “One of the great pleasures of reading a collection of letters such as this is to witness the writer’s development through a telescoping of time and events. The callow Rob Shaw who goes off to war is far different from the bloodied Colonel Robert Shaw, who prepares to lead his men into a desperate and doomed attack on Fort Wagner. The reader’s foreknowledge that all of Shaw’s choices and chances over three years will ultimately converge into this final massacre lends a true poignancy, but also a real irony, to the letters. For example, his life is saved in May 1862, when a bullet hits his pocket watch; later, he is hit in the neck by a bullet that already has passed through another soldier and fails to penetrate his own body.”[3]

In the same article, Duncan writes about the paradox of Shaw, saying, “ These letters challenge modern sensibility in a number of ways. Shaw was a true patriot, but he also was a victim of his—and his family’s—patriotism. He never totally shared their abolitionist beliefs, and his attitude toward the black race could be as condescending as his initial feelings toward Southerners. When Sarah Shaw first published his letters, she removed the more offensive of her son’s remarks on black people. Duncan, to his credit, has restored these lines and honestly examines Shaw’s sometimes contradictory thoughts on the question of race. When offered the command of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, Shaw, who was not the first choice, turned it down, preferring to stay with his friends and fellow soldiers in Second Massachusetts. He wrote his fiancée, Annie Haggerty, “If I had taken it, it would only have been from a sense of duty; for it would have been anything but an agreeable task.… I am afraid Mother will think I am shirking my duty, but I had some good practical reasons for it.” Within days, however, he had changed his mind.[4]

The war radicalised Shaw. His visit to the place where the radical preacher John Brown[5] fought his battles against slavery is significant. So too, was his meeting with Abraham Lincoln. He campaigned for his soldiers to have equal pay, as depicted in the film Glory. It is hard not to believe that Shaw would have been greatly inspired by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, correctly described as ‘the greatest social and political revolution of the age.’ The greatest authority on revolutions, Karl Marx, said ‘Never has such a gigantic transformation taken place so rapidly.'”

While books such as Duncan’s are important in the sense they reestablish the role of black soldiers in their emancipation but is also important to place the struggle against slavery in the wider social and political context. This was done in an essay by the distinguished historian James M Macpherson who wrote, “If we were to go out on the streets of almost any town in America and ask the question posed by the title of this essay, probably nine out of ten respondents would answer unhesitatingly, “Lincoln.” In recent years, though, this answer has been challenged as another example of elitist history, focusing only on the actions of great white males and ignoring the actions of the overwhelming majority of the people who also make history. If we were to ask our question of professional historians, the reply would be quite different. They would speak of ambivalence, ambiguity, nuances, paradox, and irony. They would point to Lincoln’s gradualism, his slow and apparently reluctant decision for emancipation, his revocation of emancipation orders by Generals John C. Frémont and David Hunter, his exemption of border states and parts of the Confederacy from the Emancipation Proclamation, his statements seemingly endorsing white supremacy. They would say that the whole issue is more complex than it appears—in other words, many historians, as is their wont, would not give a straight answer to the question”.[6]

The serious historian plays an objectively significant role in social life as the embodiment of historical memory. One has to congratulate the historian Russell Duncan for this impressive job of bringing together the letters of Robert Gould Shaw for the wider general public.


[2] North Shore S.I. [Staten Island]Thursday, April 18, 1861

[3] Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune-

[4] Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune-


[6] James McPherson,

“Who Freed the Slaves?” (1997

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