Head on over to the Atlantic for my most recent essay on the legacy of our Civil War’s African American soldiers and the movie, Glory. The essay brings together a couple of posts that I recently did on how I teach the movie and how I utilize the history of the pay crisis try to give students a different perspective on the significance of what these men accomplished during the war [see here and here]. You can check out all of my Atlantic essays here.
Let’s not get all worked up about George Lucas’s recent interview on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show over his comments about the the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Lucas talked about the difficulties in securing Hollywood financing for his new film, Red Tails, owing to the film’s all-black cast. Lucas told Stewart:
I wanted to make it inspirational for teenaged boys. I wanted to show that they have heroes, they’re real American heroes, they’re patriots that helped to make the country what it is today. And it’s not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fodder. It’s like a real, they were real heroes.
Lucas is not suggesting that the men of the 54th were not brave in battle or do not deserve to be remembered. He is commenting on the way in which they are remembered in film and he is right to point out that the story is told largely through the eyes of a white protagonist. Does anyone seriously believe that Glory could have been made any other way?
The Second World War is largely remembered as a white man’s war, so we shall see if Lucas is able to tell a story with no white leading roles. Click here for an extended movie trailer.
Ta-Nahesi Coates has some interesting things to say about my Gingrich review at The Atlantic. This particular passage caught my eye:
This pattern those sympathetic to the Confederacy acknowledging the sacrifice and honor of black soldiers is relatively new. Kevin’s right that it’s often tied into a hesitancy to see the Confederacy as it really was. But to my mind, Gingrich’s novel is progress–not the ultimate solution, but progress. For a century, the Lost Cause rendition of history meant writing black people, as agents, out of it. [my emphasis]
On one level it is easy to view Gingrich’s interest in highlighting the story of United States Colored Troops as progress even though it does so without threatening the Lost Cause interpretation of Confederate soldiers and Robert E. Lee. I admit as much in the review, but at the same time we should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves. As I also mentioned in the review, Gingrich’s narrative of the 28th USCT basically follows the story line laid out in the movie, Glory. That story is now roughly 25 years old. From this perspective it’s not clear to me what kind of progress we are talking about. Is it progress simply because we are talking about Gingrich, a Republican or a former representative of a southern state?
Yes, Gingrich’s failure to deal with Confederate perceptions may tell us much about continued resistance among white southerners in dealing with the tough questions of race, but his narrative of USCTs perhaps tells us something about white America as a whole. Ever since the release of Glory in 1989 the popular view of USCTs has revolved around their sacrifice for the Union through failed attacks against the Confederacy. We can handle challenges of discrimination from within the ranks and even hints of a unfair pay, but only if there is resolution at the end of the story. In Glory we get it in the wonderful image of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th and in Gingrich’s book we get it in his insistence on their crucial role in winning the Civil War. Don’t get me wrong, this is a story that needs to be told, but I think there is an element here that functions to assuage the insecurities of white Americans when it comes to dealing with race and I think it transcends region and politics.
It’s something that I’ve been self-conscious about as I research the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the pay crisis for my next book project. As many of you know for over a year the 55th as well as many other black units refused to accept a pay lower than what their white comrades received. In the case of the 54th and 55th they even refused their own state’s willingness to make up the difference. Not only did the men in the units go without pay as they were fighting and dying for the Union, but their families back home suffered as well. The Glory/Gingrich model treats Confederate defeat and emancipation as a bookend, but perhaps if we place this struggle withing the broader context of the civil rights struggle we can learn something new about the broad sweep of American history. At this point in the game that would constitute progress.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park’s Youth Ambassador Program created a song and video about the 54th Regiment. This is pretty good.
Just wrapped up another productive week at the Massachusetts Historical Society with collections related to the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. There is something to researching real black Civil War soldiers as opposed to deconstructing silly claims about fictitious black Confederate soldiers. The MHS has an impressive collection of correspondence among the unit’s officers. In addition, I now have access to a number of black newspapers through a deal with Accessible Archives. They include a large number of letters written by enlisted men and officers from black regiments, including the 55th. I still haven’t decided what I plan on doing with this research beyond writing a couple of articles. There is definitely a book in all of this, but we will have to see if I am the one who will write it.
I am coming to you from a cafe in downtown Boston as I make my way over to the North End for dinner. Rather than take the train I decided to walk it, which was really just an excuse to spend some time at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. This was the first time I noticed that the line of men extends behind Shaw’s horse, which you can see in this photo.
Man, I love this city.