Glory To The Massachusetts 54th Regiment (Volunteers) In The American Civil War-The Film “Glory”
Over the past several years that this blog has existed I have touted the heroic experiences of the American Civil War Union black volunteer Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment many times. Recently in preparing materials for this space to be posted in honor of Black History Month I noticed that I had not reviewed the subject of the entry, the Oscar-winning film “Glory”. I make amends here.
This fictionalized version of the creation of an all black volunteer regiment (at least in the ranks) hews pretty closely to the actual events in that process, taking into account the inevitable dramaticizations required by the “laws” of cinematic license. And that fact is important. In other commentary on the history of the 54th, and in previous recollections of my own personal history of “discovery” of the regiment I have noted that in my high school years in the 1960s no mention was ever made of the exploits of this hardy band of soldiers fighting for their freedom and the preservation of the American union. None. And that, my friends, was here in Massachusetts the home of the regiment and of the famous, if then obscure Saint-Gaudens memorial plague to the regiment that, at one point in my life I passed every day.
Lincoln and other Northern war leaders hesitated to create all black regiments for a number of reasons despite the need for man power in the battlefield as the war was drawn out inconclusively for a long period. Those reasons did not include the fact that the likes of the revolutionary black abolitionist Frederick were clamoring for black soldiers not only to preserve the union but to actively gain their own freedom, to prove their manhood and worth in the parlance of the time. This film details the struggle by hard abolitionist Massachusetts Governor Andrews and a significant portion of the white Boston citizenry, including the eventual leader of the regiment, Robert Gould Shaw and his parents, to create such a unit.
The film goes on to look at the actual creation of the unit , its training, the troubles over pay, the racial animosities on both sides that were then current in that American time, the deployment South and the mauling that the regiment took at Fort Wagner, including the deaths of Shaw and many brave black soldiers. I will tell you the best part though, although this is not brought up in the film. At war’s end what was left of the Massachusetts 54th marched through Charleston, South Carolina, in many ways the ideological and political center of the Confederacy, singing “John Brown’s Body”. That seems just about right. Hats off to the 54th.
Note: I have not mentioned the very good performances here by Denzel Washington as a testy recruit and Morgan Freeman as the wise old man. Let me put it this way, if you had a choice, wouldn’t you have this pair in this type of film. No-brainer, right? Matthew Broderick also shines in an understated performance as Colonel Shaw.
MASSACHUSETTS 54TH REGIMENT
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