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. Continue reading “The Real Black Civil War Soldiers”