My Civil War classes recently completed a comparative essay on the movie Glory and an essay by historian, Donald Yacavone on the pay crisis in the 54th Massachusetts. Yacavone’s essay takes the story of the 54th Mass. past the failed assault at Battery Wagner and explores the challenges the unit faced as they fought for equal pay. Along the way, the author comes down hard on the Lincoln administration (specifically Lincoln) for ignoring repeated requests from soldiers and officers to address their grievances. Yacavone also suggests that the protests by these men and the harsh punishments meted out for insubordination constituted one of the earliest moments in the civil rights movement.
While the assignment involved comparing two very different approaches to the past I also want my students to think critically and develop their own arguments. One of my female students took issue with what she took to be an overly harsh critique by Yacavone. She understood the focus of the essay and ultimately concluded that it was essential reading for understanding the extent of discrimination that USCTs faced throughout the war. The problem was with what she perceived as a failure on the part of the author to give sufficient weight to the fact that these men ultimately proved to be successful in their bid for equal pay. And why does this matter? According to my student, women have had as much difficulty, if not more, in convincing the federal government to support legislation guaranteeing equal pay compared with their male counterparts. Of course, the story is a bit more complicated than this, but I appreciate that this student was able to articulate a position based on her own understanding of these matters. Perhaps a Donna Yacavone would be better able to appreciate such a postion compared to Donald.