This is a very interesting video about a recent monument that was erected in Nashville’s National Cemetery to honor the 2,000 USCTs who are buried there. The video includes reflections from black reenactors (including the individual who posed for the sculpture) who reflect on the importance of acknowledging the service of these men along with an interview with the sculptor. I wonder whether the push to honor legitimate black soldiers in the United States army explains the recent ceremony in nearby Giles County, Tennessee honoring 18 “black Confederates.” You will remember that the VA denied these men markers after determining that they were slaves.
I have become a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s column over at Atlantic Monthly, especially his thoughts about what the Civil War means to a young African American male. [See here, here, and here] I’ve met Frank Smith a couple of times over the past few years, most recently in 2007, when I interviewed him as part of my research on black memory of the Crater. Mr. Smith has been involved in D.C. politics over the past few decades, but he is perhaps best known for helping to bring about a monument to United States Colored Troops in the city. He also established a museum a few blocks from the monument, which explores the history and contributions of black soldiers to the Civil War.
I just love the way they shrug off talk about black Confederates. We could take issue with Smith’s claim that no free black Southerners managed to join the army, but there is something refreshing about watching these two men discuss a subject that they understand.
With the publication of three books on the battle of the Crater in the past two years, one might reasonably ask if there is a need for yet another. These previous treatments (written mainly by non-academic historians) have collectively addressed the tactical complexity of the battle, including the early morning explosion of 8,000 pounds of black powder under a Confederate salient and they have provided an exhaustive account of the close-quarter combat and blood-letting that ensued for close to eight hours on a battlefield that was ripped open by the initial blast. Such a focus is a staple of traditional military history. But as much as we have learned about the nature of combat in the trenches around Petersburg in the summer of 1864 there are key aspects of this battle that have not been sufficiently addressed by the previous literature.
Just wanted to follow up with a few thoughts that didn’t make it into yesterday’s re-published post. The pay crisis scene in the movie, Glory, is a significant moment in the film. When the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts learn that they will be paid less than white soldiers protest erupts and leads to the tearing up of pay vouchers. Tripp (played by Denzel Washington) leads the protest and represents the beginning of his transition to identifying with the rest of the men in the regiment. Colonel Shaw’s (played by Matthew Broderick) decision to join his men by tearing up his own voucher symbolizes his growing identification with his men and their cause. The scene fits neatly into the movie’s broader theme of triumph over adversity and the challenge of building unit cohesion. This theme evolves throughout the movie in scenes involving white officers and black enlisted soldiers, between white and black enlisted soldiers, and even with the ranks of the enlisted black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts. [Click here if you are looking for an easy way edit YouTube videos.]
The climax of the movie involving the unit’s failed attack at Battery Wagner marks their final triumph over adversity and their collective sacrifice around the flag. Thomas confidently declares that he will carry the flag in battle if necessary; Tripp dies while holding the flag and after rejecting an earlier offer from Shaw to carry it into battle; and Shaw falls after holding it briefly in the midst of a desperate attempt to rally his men just outside the fort. The unit’s “Glory” not only comes through sacrifice, but in the movie director’s decision as to where and when to end the story. The final scenes that include Shaw being buried with his men juxtaposed against Augustus Saint-Gaudens beautiful monument to the regiment leave the audience with feelings of national pride and a sense that the men did indeed triumph over adversity from within in order to take part in a war for freedom and against a government that would return them to bondage if successful. The only story that was possible to tell in 1989, and perhaps even today, is one that fits within our understanding of who was right and who was wrong. However, such simplistic moral distinctions usually come with a price tag and in the case of Glory it is in the way that facts/events are manipulated.
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.
Today 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.