Glory In The Classroom

This week my Civil War class has been watching Glory, which I believe to be the most thought-provoking movie of the period.  I allowed the students to watch it through apart from a few interruptions when I thought it necessary to point out places where the script veered from the history.  Here is a short overview of the movie written by Professor Robert Kenzer of the University of Richmond for his Civil War film course.

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The following information comes from one of the best studies of Colonel Shaw and the 54 Massachusetts, Russell Duncan’s Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune:  The Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw.  This book contains a 67-page biography of Shaw as well as 300 additional pages featuring the various letters Shaw wrote to family members, some of which are read in the movie.

By far the most significant fact about Shaw not mentioned in the movie was that he was married to Annie Kneeland Haggerty.  Indeed, the omission of his marriage raises two questions about the movie. One, did the movie leave out this fact on purpose because it may complicate Shaw’s relationship with his troops? In other words, could a man who was married seem to place as much importance on his troops as Shaw did in the movie? Would the meaning of his death appear to be the same if the viewer knew he left a widow? Two, it is important to note that Shaw wed Annie while the 54th was training at Camp Meigs in Reidville, Masssachusetts in early 1863. Indeed, Shaw left the camp for a considerable time to make the arrangements for his wedding as well as for the wedding itself and the honeymoon. Further, as Duncan notes, Shaw’s mother, who was especially committed to his service as commander of the 54th, was worried that “Annie distracted her son from his obligations to the regiments.” (p. 37) For example, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase visited the camp to meet Shaw the Colonel was on his honeymoon. Again, would Shaw’s dedication to his troops have seemed diminished if the viewer knew this aspect of Shaw’s personal life?Finally, it should be added that because the movie did not reveal Shaw’s wife, it could not include his many letters to her. Instead, the movie largely focused on his letters to his mother. There is no question that when Shaw wrote his mother that he did so in a manner to bolster her strong abolitionist and pro-black sentiments. Likewise, his letters to his wife Annie indicate much more ambiguity and personal doubts about his men and his leadership abilities.

Shaw’s tendency to be influenced by his mother is best seen when Governor John Andrew offered him command of the 54th. Of course, in reality this was not done at a party in Boston but was tendered by a letter to Shaw carried by his father while Shaw was in winter camp at Stafford Court House, Virginia. Shaw initially refused the offer, writing to his father, “I would take it, if I thought myself equal to the responsibility of such a position.” However, as Duncan observes, Shaw’s motives for refusing were far more complex: Shaw had been through a lot with his regiment [as you saw in the opening scenes at Antietam], and seen many of his friends die near him. He was loyal to their memory and to the men who remained to fight on future fields.” When he discussed the offer with his close friend and tentmate Charles Morse, Shaw, according to Duncan, wondered whether the position might be ridiculed, doubted that blacks would enlist, and questioned the fighting ability of black troops.” (p. 23) Clearly Shaw’s decision to change his mind and accept the offer was influenced by his mother who, after learning of his initial refusal, wrote her son: “Well! I feel as if God had called you up to a Holy work. You helped him at a crisis when the most important question is to be solved that has been asked since the world began. I know the task is arduous…but it is God’s work.” (p. 24) Could this more complicated story have been portrayed in the movie?

The next comparison concerns the training of the 54th Reidville, Massachusetts. While it is a minor issue, the 54th was not in camp over Christmas. Indeed, Camp Meigs did not open for training for the 54th until February 21, 1863. There are a number of aspects of the recruiting and training of the 54th that need to be contrasted with the movie’s portrayal. First, while the majority of black soldiers were former slaves (as shown in the movie), this simply was not the case with the 54th. To raise this unit a massive and expensive effort was conducted to attract northern free blacks. While most of these free blacks were not as well educated as Shaw’s boyhood friend Thomas, they surely were not runaways. Second, the 54th was one of the best-equipped northern units from its very foundation. Duncan reveals, “Shaw did what he could to insure the comfort of his men.” (p. 32). In contrast to the movie, Shaw ensured that the regimental quartermaster, Lt. John Ritchie, met the needs of the troops. After all, as Governor Andrew’s “model” regiment, their every need was considered and met. Indeed, they did not sleep four to a tent as in the movie but occupied ten wooden barracks. Third, if the unit suffered under cruel training, if was not inflicted on them by an Irish drill sergeant, but Shaw himself. Duncan describes how in “an effort to prevent ridicule and instill discipline,” that Shaw went too far. For a minor disturbance Shaw put the offenders in the guard house, in chains, and worse. When men quarreled with officers, Shaw threatened them with death. He forced some men to stand on barrels for hours. Others were gagged and had their hands and feet bound with their arms stretched around heavy sticks.” Indeed, even the camp commandant called this punishment “contrary” to what the army permitted, thought they never included flogging as shown in the movie. Significantly, the commandant “ordered Shaw to stop all ‘severe and unusual punishment not laid down by regulations.’” A fourth difference with the movie was that while Shaw made sure his mother never heard him use racist speech, clearly to his close friends his tone was much different as he referred to his recruits at this time as “niggers” and darkeys.” (p. 35) Still, it should be noted that there is no question that as the training of the 54th passed that, as Duncan notes, “Shaw became attached to his men and defended them strongly against outside abuse.” He had been forced by their actions to question, then conquer, his own misconceptions.” Duncan adds, “As Shaw changed, he won the respect of his men…. Shaw still wondered what they might do when they reached the battlefield, but he finally stopped calling them niggers.” (p. 35)

The next critical comparison between the movie and the reality of the 54th concerns the Darien Raid. In some ways this story took place just as the movie showed, with important differences. There is no doubt that Shaw was not happy when Colonel James Montgomery ordered the 54th to join his unit and burn Darien. According to Duncan, “Shaw believed the action unjustified and disgraceful, and said he could have assented to it only if they had met Rebel resistance.” (pp. 43-44). Shaw surely was concerned about the negative publicity that might emerge from the event that, in fact, was reported in northern and southern newspapers. What is not brought out in the movie is that Montgomery was acting on orders from General David Hunter. Indeed, it was not Shaw’s threat to expose Hunter’s personal expropriation of southern property that got Shaw and the 54th released from Hunter’s command. In fact, President Lincoln at this time replaced Hunter—not because he was acting in an illegal fashion to feather himself financially, but because of his intense vindictiveness toward the South. It should also be noted that while Shaw clearly spoke out against what happened at Darien that in his accommodations in the Sea Islands he, according to Duncan, “added its furnishings with accent pieces from Darien. (p. 46)This ambiguity about Darien extended into Shaw’s feelings about Montgomery. For example, when writing to his wife Annie on June 12, 1863, just after the Darien raid, Shaw declared, “Montgomery from what I have seen of him, is a conscientious man, and really believes what he says,–‘that he is doing his duty to the best of his knowledge and ability.’” Two weeks later Shaw described Montgomery to his mother as “being a very simple-minded man—and seems to be pleased at any little attention—perhaps because he has been so much abused. You will see that he is very attractive to me, and indeed I have taken a fancy to him.” Besides showing Shaw’s fuller relationship to Montgomery, the movie ignores the fact that Montgomery also later participated in the assault on Fort Wagner. Of course, this is because the movie falsely suggests that Montgomery was linked to Hunter’s supposed financial misdeeds. Thus, Montgomery cannot also be united with Shaw in some more noble effort as the attack on Fort Wagner is portrayed.

As far as the assault on Wagner, the movie is pretty accurate. Yes, it incorrectly has the assault coming from the wrong direction, but that really is not essential. Further, it is true that because the 54th had fought so effectively at James Island days before that it won the admiration of the white Federal troops to the extent that it did march through thirteen white Federal regiments, many of whom cheered. Yes, Shaw gave some letters to Edward Pierce the newspaper correspondent before the assault. And yes, Shaw led the assault and was killed largely as shown in the movie. However, unlike in the movie, not all of the 600 men of the 54th were killed—though 272 killed, wounded or captured is surely a significant share for a single engagement. It should be noted that another 1,200 Federal white troops were also killed, wounded or captured at Wagner. Finally, it is true that the Confederate commander at Wagner ordered Shaw’s body to be thrown into a ditch with his dead black comrades as an insult. When Shaw’s parents learned of this act his father wrote Edward Pierce that they could hope for “no holier place” for their son’s body. Indeed, one month later after Wagner fell, they told the Union commander not to move Shaw’s body.

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Following the movie the class began a discussion of memory and the process by which this story was forgotten in place of a narrative that emphasized reconciliation and reunion.  I ask the students to pay careful attention to the scene that takes place right before the assault on Wagner between Trip and Shaw.  Shaw asks Trip to carry the regimental colors in the upcoming fight which he refuses to do.  At one point in the exchange Trip asks his commander what the men of the regiment stand to gain from this war.  The second scene takes place right before the final attack when Shaw approaches the Harpers reporter and says, "Remember what you see here."  It is a perfect line to set us up for a discussion that involves the gradual removal of African Americans from the national narrative as well as the beginning of Jim Crow.  We used an article by David Blight which appeared in North and South Magazine back in April 2003 to get the discussion off the ground.   

5 thoughts on “Glory In The Classroom

  1. Harry

    Kevin,

    “Glory” is THE Civil War movie against which all others must be measured. And I don’t know of any that measure up.

    I think some of the “facts” may have been downplayed in the movie because those facts were indeed too Hollywood for Hollywood. Douglass’s son, Shaw’s marriage, Shaw’s death at the TOP of the parapet, while all true, would surely make for one sappy movie. Another event was changed. In the film, while pointing to the flag bearer, Shaw asks “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?” The Andre Brougher character steps forward: “I will”. Louis Emilio, in “A Brave Black Regiment”, says that the question was asked by Brig. Gen. George C. Strong. And who responded “I will”? None other than Col. Rob Shaw. Yoi and double yoi! Would anybody buy that?

    As for the burning of Darien, who ordered it, and what the ramifications were, check out a two part article I wrote on Civil War Bookshelf back in May (http://cwbn.blogspot.com/2006_05_01_cwbn_archive.html) I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as presented by Prof. Kenzer.

    You may want to show your class a companion DVD issued with the special edition of the movie. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, it tells the “real story” of the 54th MA.

    Harry

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Harry, — Thanks for the additional facts. I’ve been meaning to buy the DVD version, but just haven’t gotten around to it. Kenzer was clearly not trying to present an exhaustive survey, but something that would be useful for his students. Thanks for providing the link.

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  3. Dave Hinze

    While Gory is a fine movie about a solid regiment check out a real African American combat unit such as the 1st Kansas United States Colored Troops. This unit truly covered itself with “Glory.” From it’s early mustering at Ft. Scott Kansas to the first engement of Black troops in the Civil War early in 1862 at Island Mound, MO through sweeping victpories at Honey Springs and Cabin Creek. They were the central unit driving off Confederate forces and winning the victory. The units brilliant career ended in April, 1864 when they defended a wagon train at Poision Springs, AR. The 1st Kanasa USCT fought valiantly against over whelming odds. They suffered 40% battle casualties and because the wore the blue uniform and were Black the members of the 1st Kansas USCT were surrounded and massacred by the Confederate soldiers. The remainder of the decimated unit returned to garrison duty. This is a the real “Glory” for Black troops in the Civil War.

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  4. Will Hickox

    Dave: I’m probably not alone in feeling confused to see you imply that the 54th was not a “real” black combat unit. What could be more “real” than the rear-guard action on James Island, the assault on Fort Wagner, the siege of Charleston, the battle of Olustee and the fights at Honey Hill and Boykin’s Mill? If I remember correctly, the 54th lost 109 men killed or mortally wounded during its service. Seems real enough to me.

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