The news coming out of the Massachusetts Historical Society here in Boston could not be more exciting. Yesterday the MHS announced that they are in possession of the sword that was carried into battle at Battery Wagner by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Shaw was killed leading his men at Wagner, outside of Charleston, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. His body was buried with his men on Morris Island.
I am very much looking forward to seeing the sword in person when it goes on display next week, but should we expect a surge of interest among the general public? You might assume so given the popularity of the 1989 movie “Glory” that starred Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick. It is still by far my favorite Civil War movie.
It is important to keep in mind that Shaw’s popularity and that of the 54th is very much tied to the success of this Hollywood movie in a way not unlike the surge of interest in Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg following the release of Michael Shaara’s historical novel, The Killer Angels, and the later release of the movie, “Gettysburg.” In the case of Shaw and the 54th we should remember that the movie was released over 25 years ago. I suspect that the story now resonates for fewer and fewer people.
What, if anything, should this mean for the curators at the MHS? It might simply mean that they shouldn’t count on the popularity of the movie alone to drive public interest. This also suggests that the MHS will have the opportunity to work with a relatively blank canvas and be able to interpret the sword free from the movie’s interpretation, which as I note in this brief video, is not always accurate.
For now, congratulations to the MHS for securing such an important artifact. I can’t wait to see it.