Tag Archives: USCTs

Is the Real “Glory” Part of Our History of the Civil Rights Movement?

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.

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The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History

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.

glory-dvdcoverToday 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.

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“History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates

The latest post by Ta-Nehisis Coates beautifully captures the frustrations that many African Americans experience when visiting America’s Civil War battlefields and specifically those places where African Americans participated.  A recent visit to the Petersburg battlefields, including the Crater, by Coates and his children highlights the continued challenges facing museums, the National Park Service, and other historical organizations in working toward a narrative that acknowledges the contributions of African Americans and situates the Civil War within the broader history of freedom and race.  When you take a moment to step back it is shocking to think that a war that resulted in the end of slavery and emancipation of 4 million people would be remembered in a way that divorced the descendants of those very people from being able to fully engage and consume the historic sites from that struggle.  And yet, that is where we are on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Before proceeding here are a few passages from Coates’s post:

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“The Question of Atrocity” for Richard Slotkin

I am just about finished reading Richard Slotkin’s new book on the Crater, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, and have enjoyed it immensely.  The book is very different from the two previous studies of the battle in that Slotkin provides a much needed analysis of the racial components of the battle rather than a traditional military history.  Yes, there is more to a battle than moving from place to place.  I am in the process of writing up a formal review for Civil War Book Review, but wanted to share something that I learned for the first time.

Although I wish Slotkin had gone a bit further in his analysis of the massacre of USCTs he does an excellent job of presenting both the immediate and long-term conditions that help explain the scale and complexity of the violence.  First, Slotkin correctly references the proportion of dead to wounded in the battle in comparison with other Civil War battles.  On average, the ratio of wounded to dead was 4.8 to 1.  At the Crater, the overall ratio for Union troops was 3.7 to 1, though for black soldiers it was 1.8 to 1.  Slotkin’s analysis of the tactical ebb and flow of the battle reveals a number of moments where soldiers on the battlefield were executed and not just black soldiers.  [It should be pointed out that Slotkin is not the first historian to point this out.  In 1987 Bryce Suderow published an article in the journal, Civil War History, which was later included in a collection of essays on Civil War massacres.]  The first massacre actually occurred by black soldiers in Sigfried’s brigade, who advanced into battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  According to Slotkin, the battle cry was intended “to overcome that supposed docility and motivate them to fight with absolute determination.” (p. 339)  White officers quickly intervened once their men became engaged with the enemy.

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Steven Hahn Gets It

My summer break is quickly winding down as I try to put the finishing touches on a chunk of my Crater research, including an article on understanding the battle as a slave rebellion from the perspective of Confederate soldiers for one of the Civil War magazines. With that in mind, I came across a very interesting essay by historian, Steven Hahn on the lack of scholarly attention concerning Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. Hahn offers two points of reassessment that are needed if we are to better understand the dearth of scholarship. First, we need to move from viewing emancipation as two separate events – one in the North following the American Revolution and the other one in the South during the Civil War.  According to Hahn, it “should be be viewed not as two discrete events but as a single protracted process (more protracted than anywhere else in the Atlantic world), associated most closely with state formation—the rise, developing capacity, claims to authority, and consolidation of a nation-state—rather than with an “irrepressible” conflict between free and slave societies.”

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