immortalizing robert gould shaw -- 10/08/14

Today's selection -- from The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. Robert Gould Shaw, (portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the stirring 1989 film Glory), was a wealthy young Bostonian and a second lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry when he was approached by his father in late 1862 to take command of a new All-Black Regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. At first he declined the offer, but after careful thought, he accepted the position. He and his troops were immortalized on July 18, 1863, when they assaulted Confederate Battery Wagner. As the unit hesitated in the face of fierce Confederate fire, Shaw led his men into battle by shouting, "Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!" As he led his men forward he was shot through the chest three times and died almost instantly. Years later, it was William James, viewed by some as the most brilliant American of the nineteenth century, who gave the dedication speech at the unveiling of a memorial in Shaw's honor. Note that the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species formed the intellectual backdrop for that era, and thus is understandably present in James's speech:

"In 1897 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts erected a monument on Boston Common, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and dedicated to Robert Gould Shaw, the man who had led the Fifty-Fourth and had died at Fort Wagner. William James was invited to deliver the oration at the unveiling. It is the finest of his speeches. Shaw had begun the war as a private in the Seventh New York Regiment, and was then commissioned an officer in the Second Massachusetts before accepting, in the winter of 1863, the colonelcy of the Fifty-Fourth, the so-called black regiment. Veterans of all Shaw's regiments were in the audience when James spoke. Shaw was being honored for having been a valiant soldier, James told them, but that was not what made him worthy of a memorial. For the instinct to fight is bred into us through natural selection; it hardly needs monuments or speeches to be reinforced. 'The survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring,' James said; ' ... pugnacity is the virtue least in need of reinforcement by reflection

"What had made Shaw admirable, James explained, was not 'the common and gregarious courage' of going off to fight.

It is that more lonely courage which he showed when he dropped his warm commission in the glorious Second to head your dubious fortunes, [soldiers] of the Fifty-fourth. That lonely kind of courage (civic courage as we call it in peace-times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared. For the survival of the fittest has not bred it into the bone of human beings as it has bred military valor; and of five hundred of us who could storm a battery side by side with others, perhaps not one could be found who would risk his worldly fortunes all alone in resisting an enthroned abuse.

"A great nation is not saved by wars, James said; it is saved 'by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.' This is the behavior that monuments should honor.

Restored plaster cast of the Robert Shaw Memorial at the National Gallery of Art

"Shaw was a war hero. He had been shot through the heart on the ramparts of a Confederate fort, about as glorious a death as any soldier's in the Union Army. Saint-Gaudens's monument was Boston's tribute to what it regarded as its own best character, to its fittest. In the minds of everyone listening to James's speech, Shaw was a paragon of breeding. He was the very type of the heroic Brahmin. It was a little perverse, in those circumstances, for James to speak of Shaw's courage as 'lonely' or his actions as unpicturesque."


Louis Menand


The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2001 by Louis Menand


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