War years: Attorney takes step back in time at re-enactments

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

For Flint attorney Don W. Shaw, it’s all relative. Or, more accurately, about his relatives. And ancestors.

Shaw became a lawyer, in part, because his step-grandfather said it would be a good profession to pursue. And as a youngster, Shaw was introduced to genealogy through a great-aunt, who spoke of an ancestor who was in the Civil War.

That, in turn, led Shaw, 58, into more research on the Civil War. He eventually found another ancestor who was in the war, and also got involved with a Civil War re-enactment group. Shaw also became involved with local, state, and national organizations that promote the continuation of interest in the War Between the States, take care of historical monuments from the war, and keep the word alive through other functions.

“The Civil War is a central event in American history,” Shaw explained. “If you want to understand America in the 20th and 21st centuries, you have to understand the Civil War because a lot of what happened grows right out of that.”

And once someone develops an interest in history, Shaw said an interest in the Civil War follows.

“The more you find out about it, the more involved you get with it, and the more you want to do things that connect back to that war,” he said.

Shaw was born in Flint, and his early interest in the Civil War began when he was very young from a great-aunt, who spoke of a great-grandfather named John B. Anderson.

“He ran away to join the Civil War in 1864 when he was 15 years old,” Shaw said.

Back then, many people drawn to the war lied about their age, and officials turned an blind eye to it. Shaw said Anderson joined because his three older brothers had, and he didn’t want to be left behind. Anderson joined the 179th Ohio Regiment, Shaw said, but served his tour as a guard in Nashville. He’s buried in Homer, Mich.

Shaw graduated from Powers Catholic High School and the University of Michigan-Flint, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1977. Early on, Shaw had considered law as a profession, but also thought about teaching and a few other areas, but came back to law at the urging of his step-grandfather.

Shaw wanted to attend Wayne State University Law School, but applied to seven law schools, just in case. He was accepted at all seven, but  “chose Wayne State because it was the best school, and I was an in-state resident,” he said.

After graduating in 1980, Shaw wasn’t sure what type of law he wanted to practice, only that he wanted to open his own office. He did, with no clients and no experience.

“But the fortunate thing about Genesee County is we have a really good bar association,” Shaw said.

He talked to a lot of older attorneys, asked questions, and found a wealth of information from those mentors.

Shaw got on the court-appointed list, and took anything and everything possible.

 “When you open your own practice, you deal with a lot of problems that ordinary people have,“ he said. Family matters, criminal cases, bankruptcies, and anything dealing with a general practice. Now, Shaw handles a great deal of criminal defense work, with a few bankruptcies sprinkled in.

“Criminal defense seems to be the area of my practice that took off,” he said.

He enjoys the variety of his practice, meeting people, and making sure prosecutors prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

His first murder case involved a neighborhood feud over fireworks that progressed from words to bullets and left one man dead, killed when a shotgun blast tore off half his head and knocked his brains out several feet away.

 “After you’ve seen that on your first murder case, a lot of what you see subsequently doesn’t have as great an impact,” he said.

Meanwhile, Shaw’s interest in the Civil War grew, and he learned of another ancestor, William Begole, a cousin, who joined the 23rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Shaw read his letters home from the war, and learned that Begole traveled south, later becoming a first sergeant for Company A and eventually was promoted to lieutenant. He was shot at the battle of Lost Mountain in Georgia, and later died from his wounds.

Shaw joined the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) in 1994 under Begole’s service. The only way to gain membership in the group is to have an ancestor who served for the Union Army during the Civil War.

His foray into acquiring historical information on his ancestors led Shaw to the U.S. Archives in Washington, the National Parks Service database, and on-line sites.

In the early 1990s, Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, and the movie, “Gettysburg,” led Shaw to an interest in re-enactment groups.

“It had to do with actually knowing you had people who served, and wanting to see a little bit of what it might have been like,” he said.

Shaw learned of a unit forming in Flint, the 8th Michigan Volunteer Infantry re-enactors. And he’s re-enacted in more than 50 battles, from Michigan to Georgia. Shaw has been everything from a private to lieutenant colonel.

“But I like private the best, because they just tell you where to go and what to do, and you don’t have to think,” said Shaw, who also has been involved with the 14th Michigan Volunteer re-enactors.

For most, it’s not only the historical significance of partaking in re-enactments, but the camaraderie and socializing that occurs.

“It’s just the whole experience,” he said. “You actually have a lot of fun doing this.”

Shaw has the whole set-up, from the uniforms and hat and replica 1861 Springfield rifle of the private, to the officer’s coat and sword carried by foot soldiers.

He said rarely will a re-enactment occur on the original battlefield, because those sites are often privately owned, are subdivisions or now sites of a retail store, or part of the National Park System. But he was lucky enough to once do a re-enactment in northern Georgia on the original battlefield near Resaca, where Begole actually fought.

Shaw remains active in several Civil War organizations, such as the SUVCW, the Gov. Henry Crapo Camp No. 145, which is the local unit of the SUVCW, and several other state and national organizations, but his re-enactment days are numbered after 20 years.

“If you have a choice of putting on 30 pounds of extra weight, wrapping yourself in wool and picking a nice 95 degree day and running up a hill, are you going to do that, or are you going to try to do something else?” he asked.

But he plans on one final re-enactment next April to mark the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, in Virginia, which effectively ended the Civil War.

Shaw’s involvement in these groups “is to remember the sacrifices of the people who fought and won the Civil War for the United States.” Part of that involves keeping track of and Civil War memorials and gravestones, keeping those in tip-top shape, school presentations, parades, cleaning cemeteries, and anything else to raise awareness of the Civil War soldiers.

There are two Civil War cannons on the lawn of the Genesee County Courthouse, and Shaw’s group was instrumental in the upkeep.

“If they look pretty and white, it’s because we’ve been there,” he said.

And his involvement with the National Convention in August of the SUVCW will hopefully get younger people involved for the future.

“When things get tough with the practice of law, I just remember the people I came from, who dealt with a lot worse than what I’m dealing with, and it gives you perspective,” he said. “Their determination becomes your determination, and their strength becomes yours.”

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