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A Mother and Son Debate Emancipation
In the wake of the battle of Antietam, Robert Gould Shaw clashed with his mother over emancipation.
I am making steady progress on my biography of Robert Gould Shaw. One of the reasons I am not moving even faster is because I am so fascinated by his military career before taking command of the 54th Massachusetts in early 1863. My hope is that this book will offer readers a much richer portrait of Shaw’s brief, but eventful life.
As I continue to write about Shaw it has become increasingly clear to me that the period between August and December 1862 was the most difficult of the entire war for the young captain. He had fought in two major battles at Cedar Mountain and Antietam and had lost a number of very close friends and fellow officers in the Second Massachusetts Regiment.
In addition to the emotional and psychological cost of battle that Rob experienced during this period, he also had to navigate a widening rift with his parents over fundamental questions about the purpose and course of the war. They disagreed over Gen. George B. McClellan’s handling of the Army of the Potomac and his public resistance to emancipation. Frank and Sarah despised McClellan’s Democratic politics, but their son continued to support his commander right up to his dismissal following the midterm elections in November 1862.
More troubling for parent and son was their divergent views over President Lincoln’s announcement of a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22. The news was welcomed by the entire Shaw family, who were still residing at their summer home, just north of Boston in Nahant.
Shaw’s sister Effie spoke for her parents and sisters when she wrote in her diary, “God bless Abraham Lincoln,” though she noted that her mother believed that the proclamation did not go far enough. Effie was devastated by the news of Major Wilder Dwight’s death at Antietam having spent time with the fallen officer earlier that summer in Nahant. The proclamation likely offered her some reassurance that his death was for a higher purpose.
Her brother, however, was much more skeptical about its likely impact. “For my part, I can’t see what practical good it can do now,” he admitted to his mother in a letter dated September 25. “Wherever our army has been, there remain no slaves, and the Proclamation will not free them where we don’t go.” Just as concerning to him was the likely response of the Confederate government, which he believed would “issue a proclamation threatening to hang every prisoner they take” and quickly turn the conflict into a “war of extermination.”
Shaw likely new that his response would disappoint his mother so he was quick to reassure her that he believed Lincoln’s proclamation was “the right thing to do, but that, as a war measure, the evil will overbalance the good for the present.”
Shaw’s attempt to reassure his parents that he had not abandoned his anti-slavery principles proved insufficient. In a subsequent letter dated October 10, Shaw found himself once again attempting to explain to his mother that he believed the president’s proclamation to be an “act of justice,” but that “as a war-measure” he still didn’t “see the immediate benefit of it” and that “much of the moral force of the act has been lost by our long delay in coming to it.” This was essentially a restating of his original position and likely did little to assuage his parent’s concerns.
Francis and Sarah should not have been surprised by their son’s position on emancipation. He had never expressed much interest in the welfare of escaped slaves while the regiment was stationed in the Shenandoah Valley nor did he ever maintain that the war was being fought or should be fought primarily to end slavery.
The divide between Rob’s pragmatism and his parent’s commitment to the moral principles of abolitionism could not have been clearer in this moment.
Shaw’s focus from the beginning of his enlistment had been on preparing himself and his men for battle and on defeating the Confederacy. Though the results of the fighting at Antietam had resulted in a Union victory there was no indication that the war was any closer to being concluded. On the contrary, in addition to Lee’s offensive into Maryland, Confederates had also invaded the neutral state of Kentucky before they were turned back at Perryville. Shaw had no doubt that more fighting was in his future and, perhaps more importantly, he understood that the war could still be lost.
In short, what mattered most was winning the war and for Rob every military decision and policy would be judged based on whether it brought the nation closer to this goal.
Shaw could have dropped the touchy subject of emancipation altogether with his mother, but he went ahead and attempted one more time to explain himself by taking a slightly different approach. “You must have thought, from my late letters, that I was degenerating sadly from the principles in which I was brought up; but an ordinary mortal must be somewhat affected by his surroundings, and events which you look at in one way from a distance, often seem very different when you are in the midst of them. The man at a distance is more apt to be impartial.”
It’s a touching letter that reflects the love and respect of a son to his mother. Shaw wanted his mother to understand that he had not abandoned the anti-slavery principles taught to him as a child, but that his immediate surroundings and responsibilities had clouded his judgement. Shaw described himself as the “ordinary mortal” whose outlook had become hopelessly influenced by the contingency of war. Rob hoped that his mother would take a step toward him in appreciating the environment in which he now found himself, but that she remained his beacon.
I get the sense that Rob wanted his mother to believe that he would eventually find his way home in more ways than one.
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