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

This post was published last year at this time and since my students are preparing essays on the subject I thought I might offer it once again.

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. 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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23 comments… add one

  • woodrowfan Oct 23, 2009

    How accurate are the battle scenes? I use the Antietam scene in my survey class but if there are better scenes to use I will. I want the students to get a sense of the confusion/noise/smoke/blood, etc on a Civil War battlefield. (I use the opening from “Pvt Ryan” in the WWII section and “All Quiet on the Western Front” (and sometimes “Lost Battalion”) for WWI.)

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2009

      The honest answer is that I have no idea as to the accuracy of the battle scenes. They seem more realistic than anything you will find in Gods and Generals or Gettysburg or most of the other recent movies. My favorite scene in the movie is at the opening when Shaw's unit marches passed a group of fugitive slaves.

      • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2009

        Just to follow up on my last comment re: the accuracy of Civil War movie battle scenes. I tend to use the “Would I want to be there” test. In the case of the battle scenes in Glory the answer is a definite no. However, I think I would like to fight in a battle scene along the lines of Gods and Generals. It doesn't seem so bad at all. In fact, it looks like fun. Even the Union soldier who loses his arm and asks permission from his commanding officer to leave the fight doesn't look so bad to me.

    • margaretdblough Oct 26, 2009

      I don't think any filmmaker would want to film a CW battle scene that's 100% accurate. This was before smokeless powder so, after the battle had been going for a while, you couldn't see much even if the artillery and the soldiers' weapons were the only source of smoke. Quite often it wasn't. At the Wilderness, major fires were started. At Gettysburg, Union troops intentionally burned down the Bliss Barn to prevent it from continuing to be used as a ANV snipers nest. As for hearing anything, not only was there the “continuing roar of musketry” but all that artillery banging away. No wonder so many CW veterams were stone deaf in their later years.

      Saying that, I've read actual veterans saying that the Battery Wagner attack scene in “Glory” and the opening combat scene in “Saving Private Ryan” are the two screen depictions that come the closest to capturing the combat experience in a movie.

      • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2009

        I would agree since a movie that is 100% accurate would have to include at least a few dead bodies. :) I still remember that feeling after seeing “Saving Private Ryan” in the theater. It took me a good day to shake off a lingering feeling of depression as a result of that opening sequence. It was compounded by the fact that I am good friends with a gentleman who was part of that first wave on Omaha Beach. Spielberg clearly pulled something off in that movie.

        By the way, since you've set up a DISQUS account why not upload a pic of some sort?

  • Corey Meyer Oct 23, 2009

    From a reenactors viewpoint, the Antietam scenes are great…but I do use the Picket's Charge and Little Roundtop parts of Gettysburg and the Fredericksburg parts from Gods and Generals. But to be honest, the best realistic battle scenes in a civil war movie can be found in a movie called “Wicked Spring”. Here is the trailer…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHDpKSFe6tY

    I actually show the entire movie if I have time in class…it really brings home the human side of the war.

    Here is the Lionheart Filmworks YouTube site…

    http://www.youtube.com/user/Lionheart1864

    they are very good with historic films on an independent level…they are very good with historical accuracy like the uniforms, rifles and tactics in more than just the Civil War era.

  • mattmckeon Oct 24, 2009

    I assume the actual battles didn't have stirring music in the background.

    British director Peter Watkins did a film on the Battle of Culloden in the 1960s. Shot in 16mm newsreel film, the camera shaking from the impact of shelling, it seemed to be an utterly convincing vision of 18th century battle, with the grimy, pockmarked combatants struggle amid nasty chaos. No movie stars, no heroics.

    Yet all Wadkins was really doing is using the conventions from the TV images of Vietnam and other conflicts that his audience(including me) were familiar with. All filmed recreations of battle are necessarily artifical. And that's OK. Homer's descriptions of the Trojan War were probably off a little.

  • mattmckeon Oct 24, 2009

    Can we argue that the 54th has become a symbol of black soldiers in the Civil War? Since most of those troops were fugitive/liberated slaves, the film becomes more true to the experience of most of the men in US Colored Troops units.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2009

      I agree. At the same time it's hard not to think that the choice to emphasize the experience of fugitive slaves rather than free blacks was made to highlight the central themes of the movie. I don't have much of a problem with this since it does speak to the broader profile of black units.

  • margaretdblough Oct 26, 2009

    I don't think any filmmaker would want to film a CW battle scene that's 100% accurate. This was before smokeless powder so, after the battle had been going for a while, you couldn't see much even if the artillery and the soldiers' weapons were the only source of smoke. Quite often it wasn't. At the Wilderness, major fires were started. At Gettysburg, Union troops intentionally burned down the Bliss Barn to prevent it from continuing to be used as a ANV snipers nest. As for hearing anything, not only was there the “continuing roar of musketry” but all that artillery banging away. No wonder so many CW veterams were stone deaf in their later years.

    Saying that, I've read actual veterans saying that the Battery Wagner attack scene in “Glory” and the opening combat scene in “Saving Private Ryan” are the two screen depictions that come the closest to capturing the combat experience in a movie.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2009

    I would agree since a movie that is 100% accurate would have to include at least a few dead bodies. :) I still remember that feeling after seeing “Saving Private Ryan” in the theater. It took me a good day to shake off a lingering feeling of depression as a result of that opening sequence. It was compounded by the fact that I am good friends with a gentleman who was part of that first wave on Omaha Beach. Spielberg clearly pulled something off in that movie.

    By the way, since you've set up a DISQUS account why not upload a pic of some sort?

  • Michael O'Connor Jan 23, 2011

    Coming to the blog rather late, so I’m not sure if anyone will read this. Some here have commented on the problems facing a film director when trying to recreate a Civil War battle. The real questions revolve around “which battle” and “which year”. The combat during the war changed dramatically from 1861 to 1865. One could also ask about “where on the field.” Shooting the cornfield battle at Antietam would be quite different from the assault on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga. The issues of heavy smoke and fire as well as hideous wounds do come into play in the fiercest engagements, but I really like the first skirmish portrayed by the movie Glory. Most CW engagements resulted in relatively few on-field casualties until the Overland Campaign in 1864. The assault on Marye’s Heights, Shiloh, Pickett’s Charge (with Pettigrew), Little Roundtop, Franklin, and Chickamauga stand out because they were particularly bloody. Look over the total casualty figures for about 50 different regiments and you will wonder how so few were lost in battle when you look at the casualty totals for the war. These units will likely show you 2-1 losses where disease and accident took more lives than battle wounds.

    So, which was the best movie battle scene. I have a couple of candidates. The assault on Battery Wagner (which was unnecessary by the way), the assault on Marye’s Heights (Gods and Generals), First skirmish of the 54th in Glory. What mars all of these, however, is the girth of many of the infantry reenactors and (in the 2 Ted Turner films) the tentative nature of the fighting that resulted from safety concerns for the reenactors. More paid extras and stunt men would have gone a long way to improve the battles in those films. A decent script would have helped too.

  • john May 21, 2012

    I love this movie it is awsome!

  • Natalie Romeo Jun 5, 2012

    I believe based on the movie and what i know about the history of this topic, i believe they were very true to each other. Because this is a movie, it of course, has to have some elements of fiction and sympathy to make it enjoyable to watch. The actor cast as Colonel Shaw, Matthew Broderick, was a very good match to play this character. He looks a lot like him and he cane across as caring, yet scared, which made the movie more true. I agree that the movie went far as to show the discrimination between the black soldiers and the white commanders, and how much of an isssue this reallly was for everyone. Audiences got a good feel for battle and how it is while there, and also got to see how difficult it was to train black soldiers. But we also got to see how much they cared about fighting and how much they wanted to be there for their country.

  • Rosie Jul 19, 2012

    “I want to touch on questions of how Hollywood shapes our perceptions of important historical event . . .”

    You do realize that you were watching a movie based on history, instead of a documentary . . . right? Of course “GLORY” isn’t historically accurate. I cannot even think of a historical drama – whether on film, television, on the stage, in a novel or in a painting – that is purely 100% accurate. Just to let you know, it is considered a rule by fictional writers or other artists that if history gets in the way of one’s drama or work of art, toss it out of the window. Artists and writers have been following this rule for a long time . . . including William Shakespeare.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2012

      Again, I am not sure what the issue is here. I am not criticizing the movie for not being 100% historically accurate. That said, many people watch movies as if they are. I am simply using the movie to highlight the difference between Hollywood and history and to point out examples from the movie that illustrate this point. Hollywood has a great deal of influence over how the general public remembers the past. Just think of Gone With the Wind.

  • Rosie Jul 19, 2012

    [“Since most of those troops were fugitive/liberated slaves, the film becomes more true to the experience of most of the men in US Colored Troops units.”]

    That’s a rather general assumption to make. Why do people act as if the only blacks that existed in the North before the Civil War were fugitive or liberated slaves? Free people existed in the North as far back as the colonial era.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2012

      Hi Rosie,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, though I am not sure I understand your concern.

      That’s a rather general assumption to make.

      Most of the units were made up of former slaves. There is nothing controversial about that statement. Of course, free blacks lived in the North going back into the colonial era. A small number even lived in the South as well.

  • Rick Jul 20, 2013

    In fact most of the 54th were free blacks not fugitive slaves.

  • pam Oct 15, 2013

    What happened to the characters? Were any of them accuracte depictions other than Gould? D.Washington,Morgan Freeman, the character of “Thomas”, where any supposed to be William Carney – first African American to receive the Cong. Medal of Honor? I can’t remember who took up the flag at the end, was it supposed to be Carney?

  • Larisa Dec 7, 2014

    What parts of the movie is inaccurate?

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