Monday, February 11, 2013
February 11, 2013: I Love the Shaws
[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ll be highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. I’d love if it you’d share some of your loves for the heart-y weekend post!]
Why I love one of America’s most striking and impressive parental decisions.
I’m sure there are lots of reasons to love Francis George Shaw and Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw. The Bostonian couple were devoted and passionate abolitionists, which despite popular misconceptions was far from a widespread or popular position in mid-19th century New England (much less New York, where they moved in the early 1850s). They befriended and supported some of the era’s most innovative, interesting, and impressive literary, cultural, and social figures, both while living adjacent to Brook Farm and in their later neighborhood on Staten Island. And they cleary did a wonderful job raising their five children to carry on their progressive identities and perspectives, at least if their only son, Robert Gould Shaw, is any indication—even if we leave aside Shaw’s decision to command the 54th Massachusetts, one of the nation’s first official African American regiments, Robert’s letters reveal a young man of unique and impressive maturity, insight, openmindedness, and character.
But honestly, even if I learned that the Shaws kept a torture chamber in their basement where they practiced ritualistic Satanism on innocent passers-by, I’d still love them, thanks to the exemplary and profoundly American decision they made at one of their toughest and darkest moments. When Robert was killed during the regiment’s unsuccessful assault on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, the Confederate forces buried him with the rest of the regiment’s dead; “with his niggers,” as the fort’s commander, future South Carolina Governor Johnson Hagood, replied when a Union general wrote to inquire about what had happened to Shaw’s body. When Shaw’s fellow regimental officers wrote to his grieving parents to ask if they wanted to press for his body to be disinterred and brought back North for a full burial with honors, Francis wrote back, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers, if we could accomplish it by a word. Please to bear this in mind and also, let it be known, so that, even in case there should be an opportunity, his remains may not be disturbed.”
If it wasn’t easy to be an abolitionist in the best of circumstances, which certainly the wealthy Shaw family often experienced—and, again, it most definitely wasn’t—I can only imagine how incredibly difficult it was in this horrifically difficult moment. And it’s not like the alternative decision would have been necessarily a negative one—who could critique the Shaws if they asked for their only son’s body to be returned home, to have the chance to bury him and pay full tribute to all he had done and sacrificed? But they chose instead to honor what lay behind those actions: his principles, his ideals, and his powerfully American sense of community, which were of course also their own but which Robert had taken to another and even more striking level. (And which would be echoed in Saint-Gaudens’ amazing Shaw Memorial a few decades later.) As a parent, I respect that choice so much, and hope that I would have the courage and conviction to do the same. As an American, well, I just plain love the Shaws.
My next American love tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Loves you’d share for the weekend post?