The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History

Glory-DVDcoverToday my Civil War classes finished watching the movie Glory, which is still my all-time favorite Civil War movie.  Students enjoy the movie in part because of the heroic story of the unit and the performances by Denzell Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick.  The movie does a very good job of addressing the discrimination faced by the 54th Massachusetts as well as their heroic performance at Battery Wagner in July 1863.  Like all historical movies Glory gets certain things right and certain things wrong.  One of the themes that the movie captures is the slow progress that Col. Robert G. Shaw experienced in learning to more closely empathize with his men as well as the gradual changes that took place among white Union soldiers as they questioned their own racial outlook in response to the battlefield prowess of black regiments like the 54th.  This is an issue that my students recently read about in an article by Chandra Manning.  As for problems, well, they abound throughout the movie such as the profile of the regiment, which is presented primarily as a unit of fugitive slaves.  Most of the men were free blacks from Massachusetts and other parts of the North.  Other problems include the time frame for the raising and training of the regiment which began in 1863 rather than 1862 as well as the failure to acknowledge Shaw’s marriage at any point in the movie.

Beyond pointing out such oversights throughout the movie I want my students to be able to think critically about the choices that go into historically-inspired movies such as Glory.  Such questions can include character development and the broader message that movie producers and writers hope to convey to their audience.  In reference to Glory what stands out to me is the emphasis on a progressive story where the individual characters as well as the unit itself becomes more closely connected or identified with the national goal of emancipation and nationalism.  Col. Shaw (played by Broderick) volunteers his regiment in the attack on Battery Wagner as a means of impressing upon the nation the sacrifices and bravery displayed by his men.  Tripp (played by Washington) begins the movie with an overtly selfish perspective, gradually comes to see the regiment as family, and finally falls in battle while holding the stars and stripes.  Even Thomas, who represents the free black men of the regiment and comes to learn during training that he has more in common with fugitive slaves, finds redemption and self-respect by volunteering to carry the flag before the assault on Wagner.

The decision to end the movie with the failed assault at Wagner solidifies this progressive theme, which links the men to one another and, supposedly, the goal of the United States by the middle of the war.  The final scenes depict the grim reality of the battlefield, including shoe-less dead black soldiers, and a mass grave in which both Shaw and his men are buried.  As the movie ends the viewer is told that the performance of the 54th Massachusetts led to the recruitment of upwards of 180,000 men and that President Lincoln credited these men with turning the tide of war.  The upshot is that the viewer finishes the movie with the impression that the story of the 54th has been brought to its completion, in large part, because of the death of Shaw.  It’s as if the mission of the unit, in terms of its contribution to the Civil War and American History, has been fully realized.  It is through defeat and death in the regiment that the nation experiences a new birth of freedom.

The problem is that this completely ignores the history of the regiment through to the end of the war and the challenges that it continued to face.  In fact, a broader look at the history of the 54th suggests that it was not at the hands of angry Confederate soldiers that constituted the gravest threat to black Union soldiers, but their own government.  It is with this in mind that my students are now reading a wonderful article by Donald Yacovone, titled “The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, The Pay Crisis, and the “Lincoln Despotism”” which is included in the edited collection, Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).

The “pay crisis” is depicted in that wonderful scene where both Shaw and his men tear up their vouchers after learning that they are to be paid under the terms set out in the Militia Act of 1862  – $10 for black soldiers as opposed to $13 for white soldiers.  Unfortunately, the scene is used to highlight the evolution of Shaw’s identification with his men and is promptly dropped as an issue.  Well, it was an issue throughout much of the unit’s history and it grew worse following the failed assault at Wagner in July 1863 and Shaw’s death.  The article does an excellent job of detailing the steps that both the men of the 54th and its new colonel took to convince the Lincoln administration to rectify the situation.  The situation continued to deteriorate following the Federal defeat at Olustee, Florida as tension in the ranks grew culminating in cases of mutinous discontent.  The most notorious case occurred on February 29, 1864 when Sergeant William Walker faced a firing squad for protesting unequal pay after ordering his company to stack arms in front of their colonel’s tent in November 1863.   Shortly thereafter, Private  Wallace Baker was arrested and executed for striking an officer after refusing to obey an order to fall in for company inspection, also in protest over pay.

It was not until July 1864 that Congress revoked its stance on the issue and awarded the men equal pay from the first day of their service.  I am hoping that this broader focus will give us much to discuss in class tomorrow.  I want to touch on questions of how Hollywood shapes our perceptions of important historical events as well as how this broader focus helps us to anticipate the challenges of Reconstruction and the federal government’s eventual abandonment of these men and the cause of black civil rights.  This reminds me of my favorite scene in the movie which precedes the assault at Wagner.  Shaw approaches Tripp and asks him to carry the regimental colors in the next engagement.  Tripp refuses and a brief conversation ensues regarding the possible consequences of the war.  At one point Tripp asks, “What are we going to get”?  The movie leaves the viewer with a sense of optimism for the future; on the other hand, Yacovone’s piece better prepares students with the tragic quality of Tripp’s question.

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12 thoughts on “The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History

  1. matthew mckeon

    Glory is a great movie. When using it in my class, I do make the point that while the 54th did not struggle with some of the forms of discrimination shown in the movie; lack of uniforms, and weapons initially or shoes, other, more typical black regiments did. The free blacks of the 54th had similar literacy rates to white regiments, but many regiments recruited from escaped slaves had no education. Susie King Taylor, in her memoir of the war, describes teaching black soldiers. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, also notes his black troops eagerness to learn.

    Gary Gallenger in his recent book about civil war movies makes an interesting point: all the racism the 54th experiences(in the film), comes from the Union Army. The Confederates fight fiercely, but they are really a faceless enemy. The exception is the white troops cheering the 54th as it marches to make their fatal assault.

    The most disappointing character to me was Thomas(“get it? THOMAS”). Andre Braugher, who played the brillant, cool detective in “Homicide.” plays Thomas as weak and geeky, the worse soldier, the only soldier in glasses, who talks in an impossibly over formal voice, his reading a sign of his prissiness. Stay in school kids! Of course at the end he gets in some good killing, redeeming himself.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Thanks for the comment Matthew. I also read that in Gallagher’s book, but my response is that emphasizing the attitutdes of white Southerners and treatment on the battlefield would have been a distraction from the main theme of the movie, which was centered on discrimination in Northern ranks and identification with the Union cause. I agree that Thomas is a poorly-developed character.

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  3. John Cummings

    The real shame about the film Glory is that it had to resort to historical distortion of the regiment’s membership as being just as oppressed and uneducated in majority as the rest of the black troops portrayed. Far more could have been gained if the men of the 54th were presented in their true character which would have provided a much starker contrast when compared to the “contraband” men of Colonel James Montgomery.
    Making Thomas the stand alone “intellectual” thrown in with a cast of stereotypical portrayals of comic blacks practically screamed minstrel show. Furthermore, every convention of the atrocities of slavery was thrown into the mix, right down to the bearing of horrific scars from lashing. This in itself is a shameful Hollywood distortion since flogging had been banned in the Union Army since March of 1861. Private Tripp would not have been dealt with in this manner but alas, someone’s unfortunate “infinite wisdom” insisted that it be included for a “dramatic” effect.
    What would have made the film all the more fulfilling would have been an accurate portrayal of the Sergeant character played by Morgan Freeman. Had it been presented historically, the real Sergeant William H. Carney would have been shown having saved the regimental flag for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Items such as these are far more important than the failure to mention Shaw’s marriage.

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    1. Eric de Jager

      I totally agree, especially since Carney was the first black American to have rightfully earned the Medal of Honour. I’m sure there was a few eyebrows that did not sit comfortably about this.
      Eric de Jager
      South Africa

      Reply
  4. Kevin Levin

    John, — Great points. I wonder, however, that given the place of black Union soldiers within the national narrative prior to Glory, whether the fact that the movie was made at all outweighs its shortcomings. What do you think?

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  5. Michael Lynch

    It’s a small world–my mom is shwoing “The Patriot” in one of her high school classes, which prompted me to do a post last night on the issue of dramatic license in historical films. I’d just published it today when I ran across your piece on “Glory.”

    James McPherson has a very thoughtful essay on the historicity of that move in one of his collections, in which he suggests that the film’s inaccuracies actually increase its general historical value.

    Michael Lynch

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  6. matthew mckeon

    I’ve got to disagree with Mr. Cummings about the “stereotypical” and “comic” black characters. I thought the characters were well rounded, not necessarily because of the script, but because the skill of the actors(with the exception of Thomas). The contrast between the “contraband regiment” and the 54th was, if anything, too extreme, IMO.

    The 54th was atypical of black regiments in some ways, and the film makers chose to dramatize common forms of discrimination more generally experienced. Not a bad call.

    Also, I would disagree about “every convention” of slavery being shown. None of the men really talk about their experiences as slaves. It’s an experience that affects them in different ways, but its unspoken. Tripp’s scars are shown, involuntarily by him,
    but they are mute. Slaves were whipped, after all.(the Union army of course, did not use flogging).

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  7. Ken Noe

    John and Matthew:

    Re: the whipping scene, Denzel Washington later said that the director did not tell him that he was going to be whipped, and that the anguish and anger in his filmed response was genuine. I tend to cringe when I watch it now. He added that he found the re-enactors kinda scary. No wonder; one of them later told me that when Matthew Broderick first appeared on the set, some of them vocally ragged “Ferris” about his recent fatal traffic accident in Ireland, to the point that he walked off the set and tried to quit. I sometimes wonder how much manipulation overall went into the performances we saw.

    Ken

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  8. Kevin Levin

    Ken, — The story about Broderick came up last summer in a series of interviews I conducted with reenactors from the movie. Some of my students were quite moved by the whipping scene, but felt manipulated when I clarified that the practice was already banned in the military.

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  9. toby

    Kevin, we share a favourite movie and a favourite scene.

    Clearly, the movie did err on the side of “worthiness”… I thought the contrast between the 54th and the child-like, looting and burning black troops, under a paternalistic and corrupt white officer, was a bit too pointed, and with a bit too much of forced resonance for our own time. The white officer was Simon Legree in a blue uniform … but I would guess most Simon Legrees wore grey.

    Also, the film dropped the incident where Shaw’s father requested the return of his son’s remains, and was told “He’s buried with his ni**ers”. The film avoided any depiction of Confederate racism, except the woman from the burning house who screamed “Ni**er soldiers!” at the regiment, perhaps understandably.

    Overall, still my favourite. I like Shaw’s answer to Tripp’s “What do we get?” – “You’ll get even less if we lose”.

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  10. Ron A. Sturm

    Glory is one of my favorite movies. It historically portrays the environment of the times if taking “license” with some historical details. Denzel, Matthew and Morgan gave powerful performances that left us feeling that we truly got to know the “real” soldiers of the Massachusetts 54. What the movie did for me was to encourage research and learn more about this critical time in American history. It helped to teach how the actions of our governments then affected future generations and our attitudes towards each other now. Remember, those who forget the Past are Doomed to Repeat it!

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