A Nation and Faith Divided
In October 1850, 13-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, son of a wealthy Boston antislavery family, sat at his desk day after day in the study hall at Fordham, as the former St. John's College was already called, and wrote angry, whining letters home with one dominant theme. He hated the school and wanted to come home. The other boys, he complained, are lazy louts and troublemakers. They disrupt study hall with foot stomping and yelling just to intimidate the young Jesuit prefect who does not know how to intimidate bad boys. The other boys broke his violin, and he was attacked by a neighborhood dog. He and his 114 fellow students, which include some well-behaved seminarians and many from the Deep South and Latin America, live under a French and Victorian discipline, which includes whippings, intended to build character but builds resentment as well.
Robert was not even Catholic. He was stuck in the Bronx because his uncle, Coolidge Shaw, who joined the Jesuits after converting to Catholicism, convinced his parents to send him here.
In January his parents gave in and sent him to a boarding school in Switzerland, where he read Uncle Tom's Cabin and grew to the height of five feet, five inches. Unlike his parents, he was neither an abolitionist nor religious; and he never forgave the Jesuits, who, he was convinced, never forgave him for not converting to Catholicism like his uncle. He went to Harvard, from which he sent home letters that read much like his letters from Fordham. “I hate Cambridge,” he moaned. As the Civil War loomed, he was indifferent to the fate of slaves. Let the Union split; that way slavery would be a Southern, not a national, disgrace.
But when Fort Sumter fell, Robert Shaw joined the renowned Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard. In his letters home he complained about the Irish troops who “seem sometimes utterly