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Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw did have a soft side, as shown in his many letters to his family and future wife, Annie, but he was also a stickler for military discipline and had little patience for the Federal government’s handling of the war effort. He wrote the following letter to his mother from Washington, Va., on July 23, 1862.

Now [that] Congress has adjourned, perhaps the war will be more vigorously and systematically carried on, though I think we should do better still, if the President and his Cabinet would adjourn too. Our republican government never managed the country with a very firm hand, even in time of peace, and one year of war has shown pretty clearly that that is not its forte. We may finish the war, but it will certainly be with a much greater loss of time, life, and money than if we had had some men, any man almost, with a few common-sense military ideas, to manage matters, without being meddled with and badgered by a lot of men who show the greatest ignorance about the commonest things. Who but a crazy man could have stopped the enlisting, because there were 700,000 men mustered into the service? Taking out of these the sick, the deserters, and those on detached service in hospitals, barracks, &c., we couldn’t have more than 500,000 before the campaign began. All these were scattered about the country, and we had no reserve, or recruiting stations to draw from….

I see that the papers are all crying out and wondering because there are at least forty thousand men absent and unaccounted for, who should be with McClellan, or this army. What is the reason they can go off with impunity and be out of the way, just when they are wanted? Because when it was necessary to shoot some men last winter for desertion, the President pardoned them, and every one thought it was too bad to punish our “brave Volunteers” for just going home to see their families for a little while, without permission. They know now that nothing will be done to them, and many of them are deserting to enlist in the new regiments for $100 bounty. The same policy has been followed with the army all along.

[Massachusetts] Senator Wilson makes a great fuss because some of his constituents are court-martialed and condemned to the Washington Penitentiary, for what he calls “trifling offences.” One “trifling offence” is leaving the ranks on the march. The regiment goes into a fight after four hours marching, and only two thirds or one half of the men are present. This may seem a “trifling offence” to some men, but it certainly is not. Men mustn’t be severely punished for disobeying orders, for deserting, for insulting and even striking their officers and non-commissioned officers, and the result is that they do just about what they please. If the majority of them hadn’t more intelligence and good sense than most members of Congress, the army would be in a very bad condition, or rather, much worse than it is now. I think this is partly due to the custom of allowing men to elect their own officers, who consequently have little control over them, and partly to the interference of government with our commanders in the management of their troops.


From Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, edited by Russell Duncan

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.