Watched Glory and parts of it several times before the holidays, AHC was pretty much showing it non-stop, which gives you time to dissect things more completely. Conclusion: made in 1989, it holds up pretty well, and I think it’s one of the best Civil War movies from Hollywood. It also got Denzel Washington into the big time and earned him an academy award.
It’s a well-told narrative—black men want to fight but are denied enlistment because no one thinks they can. Finally they are allowed to enlist in 1863 at the behest of Northern abolitionists, and of course run into all kinds of problems—no uniforms, being paid less, &c. all of which they overcome with the help of their colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. They pass their first trial of combat and Shaw volunteers them for a dangerous assault on Fort Wagner, which must be approached across a narrow and completely open causeway. The assault breaches the fort, but Shaw and half the regiment are killed. As the remaining troops enter the fort, however, Confederates are seen turning two cannon around at them. The screen fades to black…
The next morning the camera sweeps around, showing that the causeway is littered with Union bodies, but the status of the fort is ambivalent. Has it been captured or not? A flag goes up, and as it clears the parapet the morning breeze catches it and…it’s Confederate. The assault has failed, and the fort is never taken. The last scene shows Shaw and his men being rolled into a mass grave together.
Not your usual “bad guys get their comeuppance” Hollywood ending, but the film succeeds in making a larger point—that the men of the 54th Mass. showed that black men could and would fight. By the end of the war, fully ten percent of the Union army was African-American.
The film is not without its mistakes. The biggest is that the unit was not composed of escaped slaves from the South, but of free blacks from the Boston area, most of whom were well-off and educated. There are others and there is a list here, but overall they did pretty well (Shelby Foote was an adviser).
Although the 54th left a fine combat record, they were always somewhat of a hard luck outfit, like the French Foreign Legion more famous for their glorious defeats than for their victories. After Ft. Wagner they ended up in Florida, where they participated in the battle of Olustee, another Union defeat. However they gained fulsome praise there for their “undaunted courage.”
Respect can’t be commanded, it has to be earned, and earn it they did with blood and sweat, and probably more than a few tears. I always thought Confederate politician/general Howell Cobb summed it up best when he said that if Negroes will make good soldiers, then the whole theory of slavery was wrong.
***Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!
What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.
Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.