New acquisitions: Unpublished Robert Gould Shaw letters

Houghton Library Blog 2014-07-25

RGSRobert Gould Shaw famously wrote more than two hundred letters to members of his family over the course of the Civil War. Five unpublished letters from Shaw to his family, and two letters from Shaw’s sister Susanna to Shaw, have recently been added to Houghton’s collection.

The newly-acquired correspondence, ranging in date from May 30, 1861 to September 7, 1862, details Shaw’s activities in the Seventh New York National Guard and later as a second lieutenant with the Second Massachusetts Infantry. Several months later, after Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Shaw’s ardently abolitionist parents would approach Shaw about leading the 54th  Massachusetts.

Shaw’s letters describe day-to-day activities in camp, as well as the lack of activity, as in this letter written to his cousin Annie Russell Agassiz on January 24, 1862:

“We have been having two weeks of terrible weather and you may be thankful you came when you did. The mud in some parts of the camp has been ankle deep for a week and we have not been able to have any drills. Harry [Russell, Annie’s brother] and I were indulging last night in some natural grief over that whiskey of Alex’s which disappeared long since, but concluded that a large quantity of such a good article would be dangerous in our present state of idleness, as we should be flooded with visitors from morning till night.”

In a letter to his sister Susanna Shaw Minturn, written September 7, 1862 (just days before he would fight in the Battle of Antietam), Shaw discussed recent events:

 “It seems by the news today that the rebels have got into Maryland; and I am afraid that our present General commanding “glorious little Mac” [Maj. Gen. George McClellan] is not the boy to get them out. A…friend of mine told me several weeks since that the rebels were coming up behind Pope, as they did, and then, he said they would cross the Potomac, with the object of going in Pennsylvania. We shall see if this comes, as true as the other part. I thought it wild at the time, but I see this is now spoken of in the papers as their object. My friend told me he had the information as if it had come second-hand from Jeff Davis! From what I can tell our army is very much demoralized. What beastly poor generals we have had!…I hope all this sort of writing doesn’t make you blue. If it does I won’t write so any more – but I like to say to you just what I think.”


In addition to the five letters of Shaw’s, the acquisition also includes two letters from Minturn to Shaw. The letters give an idea of what it must have been like to be a loving mother, sister or wife of a soldier, waiting at home for news. On March 21, 1862, Minturn wrote

 “…I believe if we thought all the time of your position and of the future, that we should die; it is bad enough when we think of it as much as we do. How everything seems to be coming to a head now, it is terrifying to think of the next few weeks.”

The new letters, purchased with funds from the Louis J. Appell Jr. Fund for Early American Literature and History, and the Harmand Teplow Class of 1920 Book Fund, have been digitized and can be viewed through the collection’s finding aid.

Thanks to Heather Cole, Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, for contributing this post.