With all of this talk about black Confederates it is easy to lose sight of the fact that African American soldiers did indeed exist. Next weekend Harrisburg, Pennsylvania will commemorate the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops that took place in November 1865. Information for the event can be found here. An event focused specifically on black Civil War soldiers reflects just how far our collective memory of the war has come. One would be hard pressed to find anything of this scale in the 1960s during the Civil War Centennial. That said, we should resist the urge to celebrate ourselves too much. I suspect that most people who attend this event will do so with images of Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman in the back of their minds. The movie, Glory is an important milestone in our popular understanding of the war and while it introduced Americans to a long neglected aspect of this history it may have pushed even further away the real significance of the sacrifice of these men. To address it would have run the risk of raising the specter of white guilt.
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 I reference 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 & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
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. It is this story that allows us to better appreciate the men who volunteered as non-citizens (Dred Scott) to help preserve this Union, but more importantly it anticiaptes 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 leaves us with the tragic quality of Tripp’s question.
I really wish I could attend this event next weekend. It’s important. I just hope that people leave with more than their images of Glory.