American History, Biography & Autobiography, Book Reviews, Charles, Civil War, Military History, Social Behavior, War
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Where Death and Glory Meet: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Russell Duncan)

I suspect that very few people under forty know who Robert Gould Shaw was. Those older may remember the 1989 film Glory, which told his story. That movie could never be made today (and will probably soon be disappeared, as has been 1964’s Zulu). After all, Shaw’s is an out-and-out “white savior” story, and now that everyone has been educated that the African reality is actually Wakanda, we realize that black people don’t need, and have never needed, a man such as Shaw. Yet even though the Left has racialized all of American life and shrieks ever louder for a race war (something I failed to predict, silly me), I will only touch lightly on race in this review, and will focus on heroism, the traditional center of Shaw’s story. To race, we will return another day.

Where Death and Glory Meet is a short book, written in 1999, which is really just a very modest expansion of the long biographical preface written by the author, Russell Duncan, for his 1992 book compiling Shaw’s Civil War letters, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune. If you’re interested in Shaw, just buy the latter book. Reading letters, from back when people wrote letters, is always an excellent way (especially if there are good editor’s notes, as there are in Blue-Eyed Child) to understand a person and a time. Shaw’s biography is short because his life was short—he died, cast into a mass grave with his men, at twenty-six, and his body lies there still, now beneath the waves off Charleston. But once he was among the most famous heroes in American history, whose name was known to every child, and whose deeds were taught as exemplars of virtue. This was entirely appropriate, as we will see, but is now sadly lost.

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Who is a hero? The word has been stripped of nearly all meaning, through promiscuous use to describe those unworthy of the term. It is now often attached to those whose actions have at best a modest heroic tinge, and even more often used to elevate, usually for ideological reasons, those who are not heroes at all. Such cheapening was no doubt inevitable; the nature of heroism, which by definition means that one person is lifted above the average, the mass, is that some receive recognition, honors, and prestige, based on their accomplishments, while others do not. This cannot be tolerated by the levelers who have wholly taken over American culture, and most importantly for these purposes, American education, for the past fifty years.

Why do the levelers see the old view of heroes as unjust? Part of it is no doubt envy—the types of people who push levelling are the types of people who lack the virtues and talents that tend to result in being heroic and receiving honors. Most levelers, after all, are parasites and malingerers. Part of it, closely related, is temporarily-ascendant Left ideology—forced egalitarianism is one of the two core doctrines of the Left (the other being total emancipation), and allowing one person to rise above others, and worse, to be perceived by all as doing so, cuts against this fundamental Left ideology. Rather than have no heroes at all, though, levelling is accomplished by pulling down, obscuring, and denying real heroes, and substituting people chosen from Left-preferred groups, even though they never accomplished any heroic action, and in fact usually deserve scorn.

But that still doesn’t answer who is a hero. A hero is someone who accomplishes notable deeds that benefit others, at significant risk or cost to himself, while exemplifying some key virtue or virtues. Thus, obviously, someone who wins a lottery is not a hero. He has accomplished nothing, taken no risk, shown no virtue. Less obviously, someone who, through hard work and talent, makes a major scientific advance is not necessarily a hero—it depends on the risk and the cost. Mere hard work is not enough. And as far as the benefit to others that is necessarily a part of heroism, it may be incidental, and not the intended main effect—the hero is often not a nice person. Achilles, for example, mostly sought personal glory, rather than the resulting benefit to his countrymen, yet his deeds were great, the risk and cost high, and his courage exemplary. Yet someone who imposes excessive costs on others even in the achievement of a noble goal is not a hero; the direct and foreseeable risks and costs must primarily be borne by the hero. (This is why terrorists, to the extent their actions harm innocents, can never be heroes, whatever their bravery and the justice of their cause).

You don’t have to fight to be a hero, or even struggle. Maximilian Kolbe was a hero, and he never lifted a finger against man or beast. But if you’re just doing your job, even if it’s risky, you’re not a hero. Not every soldier is a hero. Closer to home for most of us, and contrary to a claim often heard today, neither are most doctors. If, say, the Wuhan Plague had actually been notably dangerous to anybody other than a narrow group of easy-to-define people (the old; those with infirm lungs; the fat; male homosexuals), a doctor or nurse who attended plague patients would not have been a hero. If he failed to attend patients, he’d certainly be a coward, but bearing the risks attendant in your chosen line of work is merely what a society should expect, and what every person should expect of himself. It is not heroism. (Along similar lines, as with teachers, those who work in healthcare aren’t sacrificing at all by choosing that profession to begin with, and deserve no admiration for the mere fact of their choice.) To take the most prominent recent example, and leaving aside that Britain’s National Health Service is a disgrace on every level, the creepy recent requirement in Britain not only that people mouth praise for NHS workers as supposed heroes, but actually step out of their houses and show their literal obeisance to this crazy belief, as if they lived in North Korea, made a complete mockery of real heroism.

Sure, there can be a large gray area. A hero to one person or to one society is not always to another, and it’s often hard to recognize heroism in one’s enemies (the British, before they hit the skids, did it far better than the Americans do; witness Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” compared to the Bush-ites who annoyingly and stupidly call jihadis “cowards”). Who is a hero is therefore in practice determined by an informal vote of the members of any given culture, if that culture is sound, and naturally someone acclaimed a hero in the moment may lose that status as emotions subside. Thus, to truly qualify for hero status, you probably have to keep it until most or all of those who originally acclaimed you a hero are dead.

All this matters because heroes, real heroes, are crucial to a society; they bind it together by providing object lessons and teaching everyone, in particular the young, for what to strive. They create true myth, and it is myths that make a society. Thus the erosion and cheapening of heroes in the modern West is yet another harm to our societies that must be reversed to move forward; studying Shaw is a reasonable place to start. We’ll get back to him, I promise.

What I discuss above are what might be called “public heroes.” But the same definition of hero can just as well fit “private heroes,” those without any spectacular achievement, or whose achievements may be completely overlooked, or even held in contempt until some later date (usually because of a change in perceived benefit to others, or in what is held to be virtue), when they may ultimately become public heroes. No surprise, public heroes are, in every society, always very heavily weighted toward men; it is in the nature of men to seek glory and resultant public honors, and that search frequently leads to heroic, often spectacular, action. Women simply lack that drive (and given the hyper-feminization of our society, this is another reason why real public heroes are denigrated, often replaced with risible female substitutes). But the woman who gives up all her free time to daily tend an aged relative in a nursing home is a hero in the strict definition, not only sacrificing but pushing back against the Zeitgeist, which holds that personal self-actualization and autonomy is the only rational way to live. She’s just a private hero; her actions will never have the impact of a public hero, but she should be honored nonetheless. Private heroes are no doubt more common, and although their deeds may only influence a family, or a small group, they still also serve a crucial role in binding a society together and in transmitting important lessons.

So where does Shaw fit into this? He didn’t start off as a hero, or seem to be a hero in waiting. That’s true for most heroes; who is a hero is usually partly the product of circumstance. Born in 1837, he was the scion of an extremely important and extremely rich Boston family, back when America had a decent ruling class. He had eighty-five first cousins, a sign of a confident, expanding society. His family was very antislavery—his parents, and their circle, were close friends, for example, with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was too radical for many in the North. We should remember that abolitionism was regarded as distasteful fanaticism by the majority in the North, especially by most of the ruling classes and nearly all of the moneyed interests, in the same way as, say, being pro-life is today viewed (and, after all, the evil of abortion is an exact philosophical analog for that of slavery, except that far more people have been killed by abortion). It was not the case, as sometimes put about later, that most in the North were abolitionists; far from it.

Despite his upbringing, Shaw himself was never an abolitionist, quite. He was an ardent American patriot (even though much of his schooling was conducted in Europe), and that tendency was what drove most of his thinking on slavery, which took second place to thoughts of girls and vague thoughts of doing something worthwhile with his life. Before the war, when he talked about slavery, his thoughts were that slavery was distasteful, disruptive, and reflected poorly on America on the international stage. But he didn’t agonize about whether the South left or stayed, as long as the annoying national tension subsided. During the war, he just wanted the conflict to come to an acceptable, honorable conclusion; ending slavery never became his main focus, although as with most Northerners, it assumed more importance in his thinking as the war ground on.

I say Shaw came from a decent ruling class, but the seeds of today’s ruling class perniciousness are evident in hindsight. His parents had substituted the social gospel for the real gospel, and though the objects of their attention were far more worthy than the objects of progressives today, emotivism as a driving characteristic of elite political focus was clearly aborning. His father was a dilettante, abandoning the mercantile pursuits of his forbears to read and scribble simplistic thoughts about capital and labor. He was a Unitarian, naturally (who, as it is said, believe in one God at most), and associated with men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, pushing the silliness of Transcendentalism, and women like Margaret Fuller, pushing the feminism that has ended in disaster for us today. In short, he was a tool. His mother was a strong but maudlin woman convinced of the total justice of her every goal, and she tried to maintain a tight grip on her son, hampered by his often being in Europe and liking to party.

As soon as the war began, Shaw volunteered. He had joined a unit of the New York National Guard beforehand, while national tensions mounted, back when the National Guard was actually a militia controlled by the states, rather than a mere extension of the federal government, as it sadly is now. But, again, ending slavery wasn’t his goal. Mostly, he wanted to prove his manhood by showing his courage, the usual reason men volunteer for the military, or did before economic benefits loomed larger and death loomed smaller.

He was, given his class and connections, quickly commissioned an officer, in the Second Massachusetts Infantry. Nobody ever said he was more than an adequately competent officer—he was brave, but somewhat inconsistent in his leadership, as often with introspective men, sometimes a martinet, sometimes a softie. He fought at Antietam, in late 1862. He was promoted to captain, but did not seek more promotions, content to remain with the Second. Thus he could have spent the whole war, had not circumstance intervened.

Black men were not initially enrolled in the Union army. Southerners nearly all thought the idea of black men fighting was both stupid and beneath contempt, but such sentiments were common enough in the North as well. Some prominent voices in the North, such as Frederick Douglass, who had Lincoln’s ear, nonetheless pushed to enlist blacks. Therefore, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, in January 1863, with the war going poorly and seeing a need for creative solutions to advance the Union cause, especially given the violent opposition to conscription, the Army began to enlist blacks, both free Northern blacks and freed Southern blacks.

The governor of Massachusetts, abolitionist John Andrew, had long been interested in raising black regiments. This goal had some unlikely supporters—the self-interested business class, whose heirs today can be found in the odious Chamber of Commerce. They were very rarely abolitionist, but they were keen to have as few of their factory workers, nearly all white, drafted as possible. (For this same reason, the business classes supported the Emancipation Proclamation.) As a result of this confluence of interests, Andrew decided, when authorized in early 1863 by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to raise regiments which “may include persons of African descent,” to form the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry, an all-black regiment, of about a thousand men, commanded by white officers.

Among others, Shaw’s name was suggested as a possible commander. Andrew’s focus was not merely on creating additional fighting forces; he, and those around him, were keenly aware that the success or failure, real or perceived, of the Fifty-Fourth would have enormous impact on public views of the fitness and worth of black Americans to be full citizens of postwar America. Andrew approached Shaw through his father, knowing that Shaw was far from certain to jump at the chance, and that his father’s (and mother’s) opinions carried great weight with him. Even so, Shaw at first turned down the offer, to be promoted to colonel and lead the regiment. He was loyal to his existing regiment and his friends in it, living and (many) dead, and since he was never a particularly ambitious man, perhaps he was afraid of the responsibility inherent in the position and that some would think less of him for leading black men (he explicitly referred to not wanting to be the “Nigger Colonel”). Very soon he thought better of his refusal, and telegrammed an acceptance.

Black men flocked to the new regiment. Douglass recruited; his son Lewis signed up. Some of this was due to an aggressive advertising campaign by Andrew, and some black men, including some prominent ones, rejected the very idea of black men fighting before they had first been granted political equality (a logical position, but not a practical one). Still, the regiment was able to be very selective, choosing only healthy men deemed eager to fight. Training was rigorous; morale was high. Shaw, whose caring for blacks was abstract until this daily contact with his new black men, mostly ended his previous not-infrequent ridicule and disdain for blacks and stopped laughing at stereotypical black traits. He no longer called those of African descent “niggers.” And while running the new regiment, he got married, in May 1863, to Anna Haggerty, a social peer in the Boston elite, with whom he had continued to mingle while training his new men.

After three months of drill, however, it was time to, as the metaphor went back then, “see the elephant.” The vast majority of black men who volunteered for the 54th served with exemplary courage and competence. They knew the stakes, and they fought not only for the end of slavery, but to earn a maximized place for black people as American citizens in the postwar world. Men in that day, black and white, took the actions they took in open pursuit of virtues that today are denigrated, or taken as covers for “real motivations.” For the men of the Fifty-Fourth, those were duty, honor, and country (with women encouraging and coercing these motivations, in the usual partnership between men and women in well-run societies). All of this was acknowledged by the soldiers and the populace; as Duncan notes, when the Fifty-Fourth was sent off to war, the symbology was of “nation, state, manhood, home, Christianity, and higher law.”

A great deal rode on the Fifty-Fourth’s success—not just the political career of men such as Andrew, but the weight of the entire abolitionist argument, made by both black and white. Opposing abolition, and black rights, were not only Southerners, but many Northerners, including most notably Boston’s Irish, who as low men on Boston society’s totem pole disliked the idea of competing with black labor, or of black people crowding them on the totem pole at all. Success by the Fifty-Fourth could defeat this opposition. The Fifty-Fourth’s road was not expected to be easy; it was a long way from the universal high spirits that were widespread early in the war. Robert E. Lee had won a brilliant battle at Chancellorsville and was moving on to Gettysburg, though Ulysses Grant was rolling up the western edge of the Confederacy at Vicksburg. It was far from clear the Union would win, and if it did, it was obvious the cost was heavy and growing. And what the regiment did was under a microscope—the actions of the Fifty-Fourth were widely covered in the newspapers. Shaw’s parents even published some of his letters home, until he asked them to refrain from doing so.

The Fifty-Fourth sailed, or rather steamed, to Hilton Head, in South Carolina, and then went upriver to Beaufort (a beautiful place I went some years ago, much more peaceful now—whether it will stay that way, we will see). There he met with the Second South Carolina and the First South Carolina Volunteers, black regiments (also commanded by white officers) formed of escaped and freed slaves. James Montgomery commanded the Second South Carolina, and was the superior officer. Shaw and his men accompanied the Second South Carolina in a raid upriver on Darien, a Georgia seaport town, which they looted and burned, despite facing no resistance. Shaw was appalled. No doubt Shaw objected on principle, but just as, or more important, was that such an action reflected poorly on his soldiers, whom he had been careful to discipline and the propaganda impact of whose actions, for good or ill, he fully realized. Montgomery, a man with more than a little of the rigid Calvinism of John Brown in him, and who had fought with Brown in Kansas, offered the rationale was to bring home to Southerners “that this was real war.” Frederick Douglass agreed, as did Montgomery’s own commander; Shaw apologized to his men and told them they would have “better duty.”

And so they did. On June 25, 1863, they regrouped in Hilton Head, as part of the planned assault on Charleston. On July 8, after Shaw complained that his men were being used as laborers, not soldiers, they shipped to James Island, where the Fifty-Fourth competently repelled an unexpected Confederate attack, to Shaw’s delight and raising the reputation of the regiment. A major target of the Union assault on Charleston was Fort Wagner, which guarded artillery that itself guarded Charleston Harbor. At dusk on July 18, after an intensive artillery bombardment, the Fifty-Fourth led the charge against the fort. Shaw was given the option to decline, given that his men were “worn and weary,” but he knew the tremendous symbolism of black men being the key to victory, especially given the proximity of Fort Sumter. Shaw expected to die in the battle.

He led from the front; the bombardment had been ineffective. The regiment was torn by grapeshot and rifle bullets as it crossed the beach and climbed the parapets; Shaw was shot through the body at the top of a parapet. The Confederates repulsed the attack and buried Shaw with his men, but he had accomplished his purpose—to do his duty, not only to fight, but to show that black men could fight, and die, as well as any white man. The Fifty-Fourth fought on (Fort Wagner fell in September), and many other black regiments were raised, with the example of Shaw and his men inspiring others and dispelling skepticism and opposition.

Inevitably, his legend grew, fed both as deliberate wartime propaganda and by a groundswell of popular enthusiasm. Every tumultuous time and place has its human embodiments, and for a time Shaw embodied the North’s view of the war. It would be hard to deny Shaw’s heroism—he paid the ultimate price to benefit others, while showing unhesitating bravery and loyalty. Probably many in the South did deny it, but perhaps even they changed their minds as emotions cooled. Shaw’s reputation increased, perhaps peaking in 1897, at the installation on Boston Common of the famous Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture showing Shaw and his men, attended by the cream of American society and the survivors of the Fifty-Fourth. A few years back, I took my children to see it, and taught them of Shaw and what he meant, and of how they should, in their own lives and in their own way, follow his example. It is sad they are among the few who get such lessons.

Of course, the human embodiments of our time, at least those pushed by our ruling classes and their captive media, are cretins and fake heroes, and the poisonous vapors that emanate from them affect not only the living, but also the dead. So today the Saint-Gaudens sculpture is “problematic,” because it suggests that white people led black people to freedom. That’s undeniably the historical truth, the whole historical truth, but it’s unpleasant to today’s race grifters to admit it. No doubt the sculpture will soon be removed or destroyed, as with so many other monuments to past heroes. The good news is that we can bring them back after the next war, along with statues of new heroes that we will be sure to have.

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  1. vxxc says

    An excellent piece.
    Heroes have feet, but Shaws were not of Clay. No doubt he’ll be cancelled.

    Metaphorically speaking only Bronze makes excellent bullets, and any toppled statues can be recast in their truest image and sent the other way.

  2. Vxxc says

    You mentioned this tangent, so allow me to address; ‘ National Guard was actually a militia controlled by the states, rather than a mere extension of the federal government, as it sadly is now.’

    Is it?
    Not with a man as Governor it isn’t, and not legally or ‘Constitutionally’ either. Title 10 orders require State Governors assent.
    Title 10 is Federalized service.

    You will note that several governors withdrew consent from DC. Now I don’t expect the Governor’s to grow spines, too much money from DC, and most of what the Government does is cut checks for support and votes.

    But those are minor questions.
    Here is The Major Question; can the Federal government given its lack of legitimacy use the military for any war at all?
    The Republic has fallen- the Oath is abrogated by counterparty treachery.

    Its one thing for the Internet warriors to say it, its another when the Sworn do…and we do, if only to each other. The Operative Quote being “I didn’t swear allegiance to you.” And yes, its been said. Moreover it’s silently acknowledged. Most tellingly the Salts many of them flat refused DC.
    And nothing happened.
    I went because the boys were green and in danger, and on Jan 8 we still barely had Constitutional govt. after Jan 20 I told my chain “this is treason”, and I’ll never do that again. Yes I am dishonored – from above- but given a choice of evils chose the men over a dying abstraction.

    But this won’t work. Always in war and with no Oath to fulfill the boys look to the Salts (Veterans)… and it won’t happen.

    In sum; they don’t have a military.
    They have people standing round in uniform, waiting to see what happens.
    I may be wrong, but I have gray hairs in a dangerous business, and I know soldiers.
    I don’t think they have an army.

    They built the Green Zone, they can have the Iraqi Army work ethic; nothing.
    They just watch.

    We’ll see.

    • Troilus says

      During and since my time in the service I have thought long about the general point you raise, sir. I recall discussing such matters with my comrades in the back of our MRAPs on patrol in Afghanistan. The discussion was more pointed then, as the subtext was something more like “which of us, given the chance, is going to shoot this fucker [our CO] in the back?” rather than “I didn’t swear allegiance to you.” It had become clear that he was going far beyond our mission and the battalion commander’s intention by deliberately provoking locals and putting us into harms way unnecessarily in order to buttress his resume. In a war without purpose and from which we were, at the time, withdrawing. I hasten to add, in case you should think this admission the consequence of perverse and malcontented minds, that the battalion commander, a moral man, attempted to remove the CO from duty for precisely the behavior I described. The brigade commander, refused however, as the CO was one of his favorites.

      Other officers in the battalion told me that the system worked, the battalion commander restrained the CO from executing his mad plans and missions; to which I retorted that, he nevertheless was not disciplined, and would continue up the greasy pole of promotion to risk even greater numbers of good men. And, in my heart I said that though that man was an extreme, he was different from my interlocuters only in degree and not in kind. For, happily did most of our officers volunteer us for daily and degrading tasks unfit for fellow citizens; and angry were they when we did not show up to these degradations with a fake and permanent smile and a slavish “All the way sir” or “ma’am” thrown in. All for their OERs. We were protected in that one instance from unnecessary physical harm or annihilation, but we were rarely spared the spiritual lashings. 22 a day. And they can’t even begin to contemplate why.

      All this is to say that while I agree something changed in January, to what extent did “they” have a military before then? What caused or started our current predicament and when? Already we were saying we swore to fight for the American people, not for these pale, last-man imitators of nobility. Already soldiers were saying “he’s only in it for himself, why should I risk my neck?” I suspect the rot set in long ago; long before even right-thinking people want to admit.

      And, though they may not have a military, in the fullest or true sense, they may have men-with-vaginas Varangians, or Pussy Praetorians. And that is so much more than terrible.

      • Vxxc says

        Here is the answer;

        We don’t need them for the plane ride home.

        Answer part 2: Yes, the open overthrow of the Republic DOES CHANGE MATTERS.

        The new “Government “ is in by force and fraud, complete with the stunning visual image of the new Potus sworn in over a field of flags as if he were at Arlington cemetery;
        = A State funeral for the Republic.
        Surrounded by Soldiers (with strained looks on their faces).
        = Long live Caesar!

        Well. Let their Praetorians guard them.

    • Charles Haywood says

      This is probably correct–that most, and any likely, war conducted in the future by the US federal government will be wholly illegitimate. Hard to say for sure, because some non-obvious threat might arise, but in practice the military is now the enforcement arm of the globohomo regime being run by the illegitimate government, so that means “common defense” is irrelevant to its actual actions.

      And yes, I tend to agree that the performance and the behavior of the military in a future crisis is something that will have to happen to know what it is.

      • vxxc says

        I don’t have certainty about any future…
        But I wouldn’t bet on anything above the Iraqi or Afghan army work ethic – for show, not fight, who wants to die or kill for these creatures? Even if you believed in the cause (?) you can’t trust them.

        They’re alone.

  3. Prism says

    ‘Yet someone who imposes excessive costs on others even in the achievement of a noble goal is not a hero; the direct and foreseeable risks and costs must primarily be borne by the hero.’

    Thanks for this definition, Charles. I will treasure it. Funny how that fits Churchill to a T, at least until post-war, but today he is considered by many smart folks the epitome of unheroic.

    As I was reading your excellent article, I had the idea to add that one more quality of a hero is to stir the emotions. The actions of Colonel Shaw and the 54th galvanised and inspired. That sealed in their reputation as heroes.

    P.S How did you manage to write this without even a passing reference to so called superheroes? Even Batman, supposedly the most heroic of them, has been reduced from great efforts to just sex. And I’m not joking.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Yes, I agree with this, about emotions. I would fold that into the need for “notable”; it’s hard to be a hero if nobody at all is inspired. Not that your actions may not have significant virtue, but without inspiration, they probably don’t count as heroic.

      I did refer to superheroes–Wakanda! But more generally, I’m not up enough on the degradation of modern superheroes to make relevant comments. Not to mention that might cheapen the overall theme.

    • Charles Haywood says

      True (and I had checked). That‘a an obscure ad-run channel. It’s been disappeared for all practical purposes, not being available in good quality, ad-free, on a major platform—like any other movie of its fame is.

    • Harlech Men says

      You’re probably best off buying a DVD of Zulu.

      • Charles Haywood says

        Huh. Probably true. I’ve done that.

  4. Vince says

    Excellent piece! Thank you! I haven’t seen *Glory* in some time. I remember liking that movie. I’m going to order the DVD. And, your comments on heroism are thought provoking. In line with the above comments from the Afghanistan veteran, I did two tours in Afghanistan, one as an advisor to Afghan army and police forces. Some of these men fought well actually, others not so much. How well the Afghan forces fought depended on a number of variables. Anyway…I too have long felt the word “hero” has been watered down. I know men who fought and killed enemy in close combat and eschewed the label of “hero.” They were doing their jobs that Uncle Sam paid them to do. I have always felt that way too.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Glad you liked it, and happy to have some first-hand confirmation.

  5. Robert says

    Charles has an outstanding canon of reviews, but, this (along with his review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals), sadly, is not part of that canon, due to its perplexingly wrong-headed premise. While his writing is, as ever, excellent, choosing to extol a book on Robert Gould Shaw is akin to choosing to boost a book on Robert Hale Merriman. For someone critical of Modernity’s full-throated assault on all unconsented to obligations, this is strange.
    Abortion is most certainly NOT “an exact philosophical analog” to slavery. To the contrary, abortion is the exact analogue to abolitionism. Abolitionism—prosecuting a right not to be enslaved, on one’s own behalf or on behalf of another—is self-evidently grounded in the perceived right to autonomy, self-possession. So is the right to abortion. One person is making a claim of service upon another—in the one instance it is a master who is making a claim upon a slave; in the other, it is a fetus making a claim on the mother. One is a prescriptive claim, and the other is a natural claim. Now of course, we can have much more respect for one species of claim rather than the other, but this doesn’t change the dynamic. Both abolitionism and abortion require killing the “mastery.” It is just that with abortion, it is necessary to kill the person, the fetus, as well.
    There is a reason that Karl Marx despised the “reactionary” Confederacy so much.
    As a side point, I don’t know about Shaw’s regiment necessarily, but as for the First and Second “South Carolina” regiments, the escaped slaves would have been justly hanged on the spot if captured, as would have been their white officers, for taking part in a slave insurrection.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Ah, substantive disagreement! Thank you, by the way.

      1) I had to look up Robert Hale Merriman. He deserved to die, and fortunately did. But that’s probably where the agreement ends.

      2) I find the rest of what you say to be confused. It is true, I suppose, that there is a facile parallel of sorts, tied to “killing the mastery,” between abolitionism and abortion. But my parallel was between the evil of slavery and that of abortion, not some kind of metaphysical kinship. I draw the specific parallels in the review I linked (of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals).

      3) Chattel slavery as practiced in the American South was undoubtedly evil. It is true that one can plausibly argue that slavery is not evil in all times and places. For example, slavery in the ancient world was not per se evil (as shown by that Saint Paul did not even imply it was problematic). Slavery as a social organization could make some sense when the alternative was starvation, although even in the ancient world slavery was subject to a great number of abuses (see, e.g., Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People, which discusses this). But an industrializing country based on the equality of man before God can’t possibly see chattel slavery as anything but a great evil.

      4) Thus, the correct abolition-related parallel is that abolitionism of both slavery and abortion is a good thing. So, for example, there is no moral problem at all with using violence to limit or end abortion; the only considerations are prudential (e. g., will the violence accomplish the goal, or make things worse?) Similarly, violence was wholly justified in ending chattel slavery. Neither form of abolitionism is grounded in enhancing autonomic individualism, my constant negative focus; the mere fact that the major manifestation of an evil is its denial of a form of autonomy does not make it less evil. Sometimes autonomy is necessary for the good, after all.

      5) Of course the slave regiments would have been deemed insurrectionists (though they might not have been hanged, because of Lincoln’s threats to hang Confederate prisoners in response). Every holder of power deems threats to his power “insurrectionist,” the more so the weaker his grip on power. (Which is, of course, why the Electoral Justice Protest gets that appellation.) That doesn’t mean the slaves’ (or former slaves’) actions were in the least morally problematic, any more than the actions of those at the Electoral Justice Protest. As John Knox said, resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.

      • Robert says

        I appreciate the response. Frankly, I find little with which to disagree. I think “as practiced,” is perhaps key to coming to an agreement on denominating Southern slavery as “evil.” However, I doubt seriously that you would lionize a martyred Communist “freedom fighter,” just because the industrial capitalism against which he fought was, as practiced, objectively offensive.
        It is the abolitionism of the Civil War generation, as practiced, and Enlightenment-inspired, which I find most provoking. That is, I am less enamored of the putative Confederate cause than I am repulsed by the U.S. one. We can agree that a slavery, as practiced, and abortion, per se, are both evils. But in my opinion the abolitionists of that generation identified the root of the evil in slavery’s denial of autonomy, self-possession, not in its practice or circumstances. The logic of such a position results in, a la Rousseau, no involuntary servitude at any time in history was licit. Dum Diversas be damned. And the “right” to abortion today inevitably follows from this bloody logic.
        As an aside, it seems to be me that the abolitionists were more motivated by hatred of the master than altruism toward the slave. Very Calvinistic. John Knox indeed. What was it that Samuel Johnson said about bear-baiting?
        Not that I want to carry water for slavery, Southern or otherwise. But in my estimation, Tsar Alexander II wisely and charitably gave something to the serfs; he didn’t simply remove some kind of unjust and unlawful impediment. One can only imagine the puzzled look on the average Russian’s face when the American concept of “reparations” is explained to him.

        • CW says


          I think there was much more diversity among abolitionists than you are crediting. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I don’t think the many Wesleyans, Calvinists, and other assorted Christians relied on enlightenment arguments for their opposition to slavery. If I read even a radical like John Brown, he centers his concerns on the Imago Dei, the Golden Rule, the demands of the Gospel (to convert the slaves) and then the duty of brotherhood (to the slaves once converted), and pragmatic concerns about slavery as practiced. They seem to share more in common with the Bull In Supremo Apostolatus than with Rousseauean radicalism. I certainly grant that many among the abolitionists were Unitarians, transcendentalists, spiritualist, and all purpose liberators.

          Also, you have said you aren’t wanting to defend Southern Slavery as practiced, but that is the topic under consideration when we are contemplating the Civil War. Despite some rhetoric to the contrary the elites of the south made it clear that the black man was to be permanently bound to servitude. And any effort to improve their condition, or even argue for an improvement of that condition was illegal. Missouri was the first state, in 1837, to pass a law prohibiting any speech or writing which might question the righteousness of slavery, and over the next few years every southern state followed suit. After the Nat Turner rebellion most states made it illegal for blacks to learn to read or right, to teach in any role, or to conduct religious services. How are slaves supposed to become fit for self-government, as was Jefferson Davis’s stated goal, if no black is ever allowed a modicum of education. When Stonewall Jackson taught his semi-adopted slave girls to read the bible he was breaking the law. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, spoke for the majority when he wrote/said:

          “The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution [slavery] while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

          Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

          This truly is a fundamental clash of vision, and the elites of the south were opposed to both the foundations of their nation (by their own admission) and God.

          • Charles Haywood says

            This is a good analysis.

          • I should note that I have come full circle on this issue. I grew up with the typical “rah rah, Union; Boo, confederacy” education (though I had a history teacher/football coach who was something of a lost causer). Then I got I involved with an insular reformed movement (I still am involved with it!) with a lot of pro-confederacy sentiment and real hatred for Lincoln as a centralizer and switched my views to believe that some of the abuses in the southern slave system were regrettable, but the war was a power grab by heretics in the north. And that slavery was likely to have been abolished in the next 25 years regardless of the war and the expenditure of blood and treasure was due to the perfidy of the northern business class. I basically accepted the historiography of Dabney in “In Defense of Virginia.”

            But then I kept reading and came to realize that the Southside system of slavery was hardening rather than relaxing, and the southern slave lord class was committed to producing a robust philosophical, pragmatic and material framework to keep the negro in eternal servitude. Further, the simple story of northern apostasy and southern faithfulness was a fairy tale flattening a much more complex landscape. Southern intransigence and aggression was the cause of the war. And the result was a judgement on our nation. Basically I have come around to the general sentiment of Ken Burns documentary (which would never be made today).

      • JD says

        So, “it is true Pius had some sympathy for the Confederate cause. Was this because he saw in the Northern United States the same liberal-egalitarian values of the Italian Republicans whom he bitterly opposed during the Risorgimento?” So recently wrote Kent State historian Gracjan Kraszewski, who (perhaps reluctantly) answers his own question “with a fairly certain yes.” Another historian, Father Charles Connor, conceded not long ago that “the natural conclusion one would draw from the predominance of communication between Richmond and Rome is that Pius IX sympathized with the Southern cause.”

        Meanwhile, courtesy the international Commie website, we can easily find Karl Marx’s letter to Lincoln, congratulating the latter on his re-election.

        Do inconvenient bits of information like those aforementioned prove conclusively that the North represents revolutionary egalitarianism, much less that the South was in the right? Of course not. That’s not the point. (For all I know Mr Heywood thinks Pius IX was an idiot, or that Karl Marx had his good moments.)

        No, the point is not to convert any Unionist into a “neo-Confederate,” nor to “defend slavery.”

        The point is to clarify why I myself find so irritating the supposedly edgy and daring Hillsdale-Claremont discourse. Even while positioning themselves to make the most of the Trump moment, proponents of said discourse ignore inconvenient facts and have pushed aside the old-school paleoconservative perspective, as if it were nothing. For that matter, the Hillsdale-Claremont school doesn’t even dare flirt with Shelby Foote’s rather mild “great compromise,” which would hurrah for Union victory even while insisting that Southerners had been honorable, sincere Americans with certain distinctive virtues worthy of praise and emulation.

        Instead of Foote, we have “conservatives” at National Review approvingly quoting W.E.B. Dubois’s attacks on Robert E. Lee. (Excuse me, I meant to say, “the lifelong Communist-Stalinist W.E.B. Dubois.”)

        Why is it everywhere taken for granted that conservatives should unreservedly hail Frederick Douglass as a hero, when he ditched his wife to hook up with a socialist-feminist refugee from the 1848 revolution? How is it self-evident that the man of the right should, on the other hand, cast as irredeemable villains fellows who loved Cicero, memorized Sir Walter Scott, and didn’t realize that the words of Saint Paul and the Council of Gangra on the subject were irrelevant to “an industrializing country based on the equality of man”? How is it self-evident that the man of the right should unreservedly celebrate radicals who took it upon themselves to utterly level somebody else’s home and culture in the name of Equality?

        In any case, I take it as self-evident that anybody who really cares two hoots about Western civilization will be ready to defend “canceled” Southerners like Basil Gildersleeve.

        • Charles Haywood says

          There is some truth to these criticisms (especially of National Review, of course). Racial discourse is shifting, and you can bet it is going to shift a lot more, hard and fast. In part, that’s why I haven’t yet written several pieces tied to race. Was John Brown a hero? On the other hand, I suspect it is the case that the question of race as viewed through the Civil War is irreducibly tangled, as can be seen from reactions to this review. The question of race today is actually pretty simple from an analytical perspective; it’s just that very few people like the answers, or are able to offer practical management solutions.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Interesting, although I can’t read the article. In fact, I was at the statue the day before yesterday! No sign of it being cancelled yet, fortunately.

  6. Robert says

    So one does not leave the wrong impression… Southern statesmen at the time were wholly justified in being pro-slavery, i.e., the Aboliitionist position is indefensible, even if today, with the benefit of hindsight, I personally find the practiced institution flawed and anachronistic. Since slavery is not a per se evil, to seek its destruction with the sole result being the begetting of autonomic individualism, is itself an evil. Robert Gould Shaw is no hero.

    • Charles Haywood says

      This confuses autonomic individualism with autonomy. It is not the case that human beings have no claim on autonomy; this is why chattel slavery in any modern society is an objective evil. Claims on autonomy, individual or group-based (e.g., nationalism) are fully compatible with a Right view of society and history. It is the exaltation of autonomy above all other goods that is the problem, not any claim on autonomy. Slaves in America were entirely morally justified in rebelling.

  7. Robert says

    I do not quite follow the distinction you are making between autonomic individualism and autonomy. Nor is it self-evident what difference the distinction makes, or what effect this “right” (if I read you correctly) to autonomy would have on other human institutions, e.g., familial relations, religious authority, monarchism, etc… Perhaps you are a libertarian, and I have missed it?
    That is, I fail to see the distinction between having no autonomy due to circumstance (e.g., having no property, and forced to work for another), versus personal bondage (e.g., being a slave, and forced to work for another). Unless there is a duty not to own slaves.
    If so, is this duty absolute? Or situational? If so, what situations?
    That is, from whence does this right to autonomy arise? Logically, such a right is necessarily simply the mirror of a presupposed duty not to impose oneself upon another by force of power. Under an atheistic worldview of course, no such duty can exist (any more, admittedly, than in a duty in the slave to obey). As Dostoevsky might have said, “if there is no God, all is permitted.”
    But of course since we are talking under a Christian rubric, there is such a default duty. Yet, it is not absolute, and there are circumstances under which there is no such duty. Where autonomy does not obtain. In the African slave trade, razias of Africans by Europeans were very much the exception. Purchase of those whose lives were forfeit in a barbarous continent was vastly the norm. What possible duty was there not to so purchase the dead?
    Slaves in America were absolutely not justified in engaging in insurrection; it is self-evident that in such an event (thankfully rare), their owners would have been entirely morally justified in hanging them on the spot.
    Additionally, what relationship does the autonomy you extol have with authority? Do the requirements of autonomy mandate that “authority” be justifiable to the governed? And who is to judge? Mr. Rawls?
    I think the autonomy to which you refer pertains to that basic Christian dignity which is threatened by modern totalitarianism. This then invites the question of whether or not slaves can have that sort of autonomy, and maybe more in comparison to certain degraded “free” industrial workers. I would not argue that some amount of autonomy is not fully compatible with a flourishing society; surely it is. On the other hand, I do not know how Christian-practiced slavery would not preserve the most important aspect of autonomy, i.e., freedom of the soul, or free will. Surely a slave could be a slave, and a Christian as well, equal to any other Christian in this regard. So where is the objective evil? Particularly given the alternative?
    I am sorry, but I find these ideations totally incomprehensible, and inconsistent with everything else I have read at The Worthy House. But I am trying to understand, for my own edification. Waving away of all the ancient/medieval judgments about the licitness of slavery—because times have changed—seems to me to parallel closely the argument liberal “Catholics” use against capital punishment.
    No amount of obfuscation will render slavery an objective evil. Robert Gould Shaw was as evil in attempting to liberate slaves from the institution of slavery in the South as Robert Hale Merriman was in attempting to liberate the proletariat from the institution of property in the world. I am sure they both know that now.

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