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.
Consider the pay crisis scene. Yes, it did take place, but not until September 1863 – roughly two months after the failed assault at Battery Wagner. Of course, this means that Shaw was not with the unit at this time. The movie leaves the question of equal pay unanswered, but my guess is that most people walk away believing that the issue had been addressed given their sacrifice and performance in battle. How could a government pay men less after such a heroic attack? That little shift in time matters to how we understand the history and significance of the 54th Massachusetts and every other black Union regiment in the Civil War. It’s a reminder that even the sacrifice of so many black soldiers (who served as non-citizens since Dred Scott) was insufficient to overcome even the most blatant forms of institutional racism by the very government that they were fighting and dying to preserve. The scene in the movie is quite powerful and even historically accurate, but placed in its proper historical context it’s meaning and significance is transformed in a way that takes us beyond the Civil War entirely.
The subsequent 13 months that the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments protested unequal pay arguably represents its true “Glory”, but it is not a movie that Hollywood could have produced in 1989 and it is not clear that it could do so today. First, any Hollywood Civil War movie that adddresses a history that has been collectively ignored for so long will need to conform to certain expectations when it comes to our collective understanding of what the Civil War was about and what it accomplished. Most Americans – unless you are some diehard “Lost Cause” nut who believes “The South Shall Rise Again” and regardless of background knowledge – believe that it was a good thing that both slavery was destroyed and that the Confederacy was unsuccessful in its bid for independence. Such a view presents us with a very straightforward and simple moral balance sheet: United States good and Confederacy bad. It’s difficult to imagine moviegoers sitting through two hours of watching a story about the loss of more than 50% of your men in a failed assault followed by a successful 13-month struggle against unequal pay.
Rather than simply see the Confederate government as the enemy we would have to consider the extent to which the United States worked to maintain a social and political hierarchy based on race even in a war that ultimately led to the end of slavery. Yes, there are plenty of Hollywood movies that address injustices on the part of government and subsequent triumph over those injustices, but when it comes to our Civil War I suspect that we are much too committed to certain moral assumptions and would rather not have them muddied.
In the end it may be the case that our understanding of the historical significance of the 54th Massachusetts is just as much tied into the Civil Rights Movement as it is with the Civil War.