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TNR Film Classic: 'Glory' (1990)

“Can Movies Teach History?” asks the title of a recent New York Times feature article. The answer for Glory is yes. It is not only the first feature film to treat the role of black soldiers in the American Civil War; it is also the most powerful and historically accurate movie about that war ever made. If it wins a deserved popularity, it will go far to correct the distortions and romanticizations of such earlier blockbuster films as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind. Celebrating their 50th anniversary on the screen, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are still teaching false and stereotyped lessons about slavery and the Civil War to millions of viewers. Glory will throw a cold dash of realism over the moonlight-and-magnolias portrayal of the Confederacy. It may also help to restore the courageous image of black soldiers and their white officers that prevailed in the North during the latter war years and early postwar decades, before the process of romanticizing the Old South obscured that image.

Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from its organization in the winter of 1863 to the climactic assault of July 18, 1863, against Fort Wagner, a massive earthwork guarding the approach to Charleston. The Union military and naval effort to capture Charleston failed in 1863. So did this assault on Fort Wagner led by the 54th, which suffered nearly 50 percent casualties in the attack. One of them was Col. Robert Gould Shaw, killed while leading his men over the parapet. But if in this narrow sense the attack was a failure, in a more profound sense it was a success of historic proportions. The unflinching behavior of the regiment in the face of an overwhelming hail of lead and iron answered the skeptic’s question, “Will the Negro fight?” It demonstrated the manhood and courage of the race to millions of white people in both North and South who had doubted whether black men would stand in combat against soldiers of the self-styled master race.

The events that led to this epochal moment in Afro-American history represented a radical evolution of the scope and purpose of the Civil War. The original war aims of Abraham Lincoln’s Administration had been to suppress an insurrection in 11 Southern states and to restore them to their old place in the Union. The North conceived of this as a limited war that would not fundamentally alter the American polity or society—including slavery. Four slave states had remained loyal to the Union. In 1861-62 they would not have supported a war to abolish slavery. Neither would the Democrats, who constituted nearly half of the Northern voters. And the Constitution that the North was fighting to defend guaranteed the protection of slavery in states that wanted it. Therefore, despite Lincoln’s personal abhorrence of slavery, he could not willfully turn this war for the Union into a war against slavery. Nor could his War Department accept black volunteers in the Union Army in 1861, for to do so would have sent a signal that this was to be an abolition war.

By 1862, though, it was becoming such a war by the actions of slaves themselves and of the Lincoln Administration and Congress, and by the accelerating momentum of the conflict. It had become a total war, not merely a militia action to suppress insurrection. Thousands of slaves flocked to Union Army posts when Northern troops invaded portions of the South. Abolitionists and radical Republicans insisted that they must be granted freedom. The success of Confederate military offensives in 1862 convinced Republicans, including Lincoln, that the North could not win the war without mobilizing all its resources and striking against Southern resources used to sustain the Confederate war effort. The most important such resource was slavery, for slaves constituted the majority of the South’s labor force. In the summer of 1862 Congress enacted legislation confiscating the property of Confederates, including slaves. Lincoln followed this with the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves, invoking his power as commander in chief to seize enemy property used to wage war against the United States. The Proclamation also stated that blacks would be “received into the armed services of the United States.”

These events underlay the decision of Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts to organize a black regiment, which became the 54th Massachusetts. A bold experiment, black soldiers could be made acceptable in the context of the time only if they were commanded by white officers. Andrew was determined to appoint officers “of firm antislavery principles . . . superior to a vulgar contempt for color.” In Robert Gould Shaw, son of a prominent abolitionist family, he found his man. As black volunteers came into training camp near Boston during the spring of 1863, Shaw shaped them into a high-morale outfit eager to prove their mettle.

In May 1863 the 54th completed its training and marched through Boston to embark for the front (a scene nicely depicted in Glory).About the same time the New York Tribune, the leading Northern newspaper and a supporter of arming blacks to fight for the Union and freedom, observed that most Yankees now endorsed that radical policy, but many still wondered whether blacks would make good soldiers. “Loyal whites have generally become willing that they should fight,” declared a Tribune editorial, “but the great majority have no faith that they will do so. Many hope they will prove cowards and sneaks—others greatly fear it.”

The 54th was not the first black regiment organized, or the first to see combat. To test the waters on this issue, the War Department quietly allowed Union commanders of forces occupying portions of the lower Mississippi Valley, the Kansas-Missouri border, and the South Carolina sea islands to begin organizing black regiments in the fall of 1862. Four of these regiments had fought in actions connected with the Vicksburg campaign during May and June 1863, winning plaudits for their performance. But these events had received little publicity in the Northern press.

The recruitment of black combat troops was still regarded as a risky experiment when the 600 men of the 54th moved out at dusk on July 18 to the attack on Fort Wagner. During the next few hours they more than justified the experiment. Forced by the ocean on one side and swamps on the other to approach the fort along several hundred yards of narrow beach, the regiment moved forward steadily through bursting shells and murderous musketry, losing men every step of the way but continuing right up the ramparts and breaching the parapet before the immense strength of the works stopped them. (The portrayal of this attack in Glory is the most realistic combat footage in any Civil War movie I have seen.)

A war correspondent for the New York Tribune vividly described the battle to Northern newspaper readers. The 54th’s attack did more than prove that Fort Wagner was impregnable to infantry assault; it disabused hundreds of thousands of Northerners of their stereotypes. “Who asks now in doubt and derision, ‘Will the Negro fight?’“ commented one abolitionist. “The answer is spoken from the cannon’s mouth . . . it comes to us from . . . those graves beneath Fort Wagner’s walls, which the American people will surely never forget.” “Through the cannon smoke of the dark night,” said the Atlantic Monthly, “the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see.” For the New York Tribune, the assault resolved any lingering doubts: “It made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill had been for ninety years to the white Yankees.”

White officers of the 54th represented the elite of New England society. Some, including Shaw, were Harvard alumni and sons of prominent families. Several—also including Shaw—were combat veterans of white regiments during the first two years of the war. Anti-slavery in conviction, they had willingly risked stigma and ridicule to cast their lot with a black regiment. Shaw’s death made a deeper impression on Yankee culture than that of any of the other 35,000 men from New England killed in the Civil War. The clergyman Henry Ward Beecher wrote that Shaw’s martyrdom had regenerated Boston’s past glory as America’s cradle of freedom: “Our young men seemed ignoble; the faith of old heroic times had died . . . but the trumpet of this war sounded the call and Oh! how joyful has been the sight of such unexpected nobleness in our young men.” Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell extolled Shaw in verse. Lowell wrote:

      Right in the van.
On the red rampart’s slippery swell.
      With heart that beat a charge, he fell
      Foeward, as fits a man;
But the high soul burns on to light men’s feet
Where death for noble ends makes dying sweet.

The Confederate defenders of Fort Wagner stripped Shaw’s body and dumped it into an  unmarked mass grave with the bodies of the men of the regiment who had been killed in the attack. When the Union commander sent a flag of truce across the lines a day later to request the return of Shaw’s body (a customary practice for  high-ranking officers killed in the Civil War), a Confederate officer replied contemptuously, “We have buried him with his niggers.” This produced bitterness as well as more poetry in the North, the best of which was perhaps these lines by an obscure bard:

They buried him with his niggers!
      A wide grave should it be.
They buried more in that shallow trench
      Than human eye could see.
Ay, all the shames and sorrows
      of more than a hundred years
Lie under the weight of that Southern soil
      Despite those cruel sneers.

Several weeks after the battle, Union forces finally occupied Fort Wagner after a punishing naval bombardment had compelled the Confederates to evacuate it. When a Union officer offered to search for Shaw’s grave to recover his body, Shaw’s father wrote an eloquent letter to stop the enterprise: “We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen.” The most fitting marker for Shaw and the soldiers of the 54th is Augustus St. Gaudens’s superb bas-relief sculpture on Boston Common showing Shaw in the foreground on his horse while his soldiers march alongside with shouldered rifles and heads held high in pride—surely the noblest of the thousands of Civil War monuments in this country.

The apotheosis of Shaw and his men in July 1863 came just after the terrible four-day draft riot in New York City. The riot had been fueled in part by the hostility of Irish-Americans to blacks and to being drafted to fight in a war to free the slaves, who they feared would come North to compete for jobs and social space. Black New Yorkers were the chief victims of the rioters. On July 15 the mob beat to death the nephew of one of the 54th’s sergeants, Robert Simmons; three days later Simmons was mortally wounded in the attack on Fort Wagner.

The draft riot occurred in the context of opposition by Northern Democrats to the Lincoln Administration’s war policies, including emancipation, black soldiers, and the draft. Democrats had done much to stir up the racial hatreds manifested by the rioters, who chanted the anti-war and anti-black slogans of the “Copperhead” wing of the party. Few Republican commentators failed to juxtapose the draft riot with the heroic conduct of the 54th at Fort Wagner, and to point to the moral: black men who fought for the Union deserve more respect than white men who rioted against it.

Lincoln himself made this point in a public letter to a political meeting in August 1863, which was reprinted in nearly every Northern newspaper. “Some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes,” wrote Lincoln, “believe the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.” This was a reference to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who in a recent letter to Lincoln had endorsed the value of black regiments. Addressing himself to anti-emancipation Democrats, Lincoln continued: “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you,” that is, for the Union.

The performance of the 54th at Fort Wagner not only advanced the liberation of slaves; it also helped to liberate Lincoln from the constitutional and political constraints that had earlier inhibited the President from making this war for the Union a war against slavery—an institution that Lincoln had often branded a “monstrous injustice.” In a moving peroration of this public letter written a month after Fort Wagner, Lincoln wrote that when final victory brought a new birth of freedom to the re-United States, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”

Glory does not go into detail about the impact of the battle of Fort Wagner on Northern opinion; it is sketchy on the political context of the black soldier issue; it does not mention the draft riot. The 54th continued to serve through the war, fighting in several more battles and skirmishes. The movie, though, ends with the attack on Fort Wagner. That is appropriate, for Shaw is the central figure in the film. His death makes a fitting climax to the drama whose tensions build steadily to that moment of consummation.

If the 54th had done nothing else in the war, this would have elevated it to the deserved status of most famous of the 166 black regiments in the Union Army. If it is not literally true, as the caption appearing on the screen at the end of the movie would have it, that the bravery of the 54th at Fort Wagner caused Congress to authorize more black regiments—that had happened months earlier—the example of the 54th did help to transform experiment into policy. It also helped to earn a front-line combat role for many other black regiments instead of the rear-area role as service and labor battalions that had been their original purpose. A central theme of Glory is Shaw’s determined fight to win a combat assignment for the 54th, so it can earn respect for black manhood and overcome the stereotype of shiftless, cowering, comic darkies.

Glory portrays this theme with sensitivity and dramatic power—even though many scenes and characters that convey it are fictional. This raises the question posed by Richard Bernstein’s Times article “Can Movies Teach History?” He observes that “more people are getting their history, or what they think is history, from the movies these days than from the standard history books.” For every person who has read one of the several excellent histories of black soldiers in the Civil War, a hundred or more will see this movie. That being true, does “the filmmaker, like the novelist, have license to use the material of history selectively and partially in the goal of entertaining, creating a good dramatic product, even forging what is sometimes called the poetic truth, a truth truer than the literal truth?” asks Bernstein. In other words, “Does it matter if the details are wrong if the underlying meaning of events is accurate?”

Glory does confront the literal-minded historian with this question on several occasions. Most of the details are right. And when they are wrong, there is often a rational explanation that minimizes the distortion. Knowledgeable viewers will note that in the movie the 54th charges southward against Fort Wagner, with the Atlantic ocean on its left, when in reality the assault went northward. The reason is the configuration of the Georgia beach where the set of Fort Wagner was built, which required a southward assault. Does it really matter?

Some errors in the film are inexplicable, though, because they seem to serve no purpose. The 54th began organizing in February 1863, not three months earlier. In his brief cameo role, black leader Frederick Douglass is presented as a venerable sage whose screen appearance is modeled on a photograph taken a quarter century later when Douglass was in his 70s instead of the vigorous 45 he was in 1863. The real Robert Gould Shaw received the offer of command of the 54th by letter from Governor Andrew borne by his father to Shaw in winter camp with his regiment (the 2nd Massachusetts) in Virginia. Rob discussed it earnestly with his father, wrestled with his conscience overnight, declined, then changed his mind a day later and accepted. In the movie, Shaw is attending an elegant drawing-room party in Boston while on furlough when Andrew offers the command; without a pause, Shaw accepts. Literal history in this case would seem to have offered greater dramatic possibilities for getting at a deeper truth than the cinematic version.

Except for Shaw, the principal characters in the film are fictional: there was no real Maj. Cabot Forbes; no Emerson-quoting black boyhood friend of Shaw’s named Thomas Searles; no tough Irish Sergeant-Major Mulcahy; no black Sergeant and father-figure John Rawlins; no brash, hardened Private Trip. Indeed, there is a larger fiction involved here. The movie gives the impression that most of the 54th’s soldiers were former slaves. But in fact, the regiment was recruited mainly in the North and most of the men had always been free. Some of them came from prominent Northern black families; two of Frederick Douglass’s sons were among the first to sign up. The older son, Lewis, was sergeant-major of the regiment from the start. The young adjutant of the regiment, wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner, was Garth Wilkinson James, brother of William and Henry James. A dramatic and important story about the relationship of Northern blacks to slavery and the war, and about the wartime ideals of New England culture, could have been constructed from a cast of real, historical figures. The story also might have included Sergeant Simmons, his nephew, and the draft riot.

But the story that producer Freddie Fields, director Edward Zwick, and screenwriter Kevin Jarre chose to tell is equally important—and, in that sense of “the underlying meaning of events,” equally true. This is a film not simply about the 54th Massachusetts, but about blacks in the Civil War. Most of the 178,000 black soldiers (and 10,000 black sailors) were slaves until a few months, even a few days, before they joined up. They fought for their freedom, for the freedom of their families, their people. This was the most revolutionary feature of a war that wrought a revolutionary transformation in America by freeing four million slaves and uprooting the social structure of half the country. Arms in the hands of slaves had been the nightmare of Southern whites for generations. In 1863 the nightmare came true. It achieved a new dignity, self-respect, and militancy for the former slaves who fought for the Union. It helped them achieve equal citizenship and political rights—for a time—after the war.

That is the real story told by Glory. That is why most of the soldiers are depicted as former slaves. It is a story of their transformation from an oppressed to a proud people. It is a story told skillfully through several of the fictional events in the film—the incident of the racist quartermaster who initially refuses to distribute shoes to Shaw’s men; the punishment of Trip by whipping for going AWOL; the regiment’s dramatic refusal on principle to accept less pay than white soldiers, which launched an ultimately successful movement to shame Congress into equalizing the pay of black soldiers (this actually happened, but at Shaw’s initiative, not Trip’s); the religious meeting the night before the assault on Fort Wagner.

It is a story told symbolically in one of the most surreal and, at first glance, irrelevant scenes in the movie, when Shaw gallops his horse along a path flanked by stakes, each with a watermelon (in February in Massachusetts?) jammed on its top. Shaw slashes right and left with his sword slicing and smashing every watermelon. The point becomes clear when we recall the identification of watermelons with the darky stereotype. If the image of smashed watermelons in Glory can replace that of moonlight and magnolias in Gone with the Wind as America’s cinematic version of the Civil War, it will be a great gain for truth.

This article ran in the January 15, 1990, issue of the magazine.