20 Years of Glory; In Memorial to the Colored Troopers of the Civil War

This is the 20th anniversary of the Academy Award-winning film Glory, that magnificent ode to the African American soldiers who served during the Civil War. Glory is considered one of the best Civil War movies ever made, due to its outstanding cinematography, excellent use of civil war reenactments, and inclusion of the perspective of African Americans on the Civil War (which was shockingly absent in many previous Civil War films).

The film, which was released in December 1989, did a modest box-office of $26,593,580. I understand that it’s had good video rental and sale numbers, fueled in part by its use in schools.

The fact-based movie, which was directed by Edward Zwick, stars Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Cary Elwes. Washington won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film also won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing.

Morgan Freeman in Glory

Glory is a war film about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The 54th was one of the first formal units of the U.S. Army to be made up entirely of African-American men (not including the officers). As described in Wikipedia,

The regiment was authorized in March 1861. The 54th Massachusetts primarily was composed of free men. A number of the recruits were from states other than Massachusetts, with several coming from Pennsylvania and New York. Two of the recruits were sons of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The 54th trained at Camp Meigs in Readville near Boston. While there they received considerable moral support from abolitionists in Massachusetts including Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The film is told mainly from the viewpoint of the 54th’s Commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). The movie shows how Shaw and his black soldiers grow from an initial period of unease bred of ignorance and lack of trust, to feelings of respect and pride in each other.

In July of 1863, Shaw volunteered the 54th for the honor of leading the charge against South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, a mission that means almost certain death. The end of the film, which stunningly showcases the horror and destructiveness of war, is a classic piece of moviemaking.

One of the most chilling and memorable scenes in the movie is the flogging of Private Trip, a runaway slave played by Denzel Washington, for insubordination. When Trip defiantly removes his shirt so that he can be whipped, it reveals a back filled with scars from prior beatings. These scars symbolize both the horrors of slavery, and the desire to face all afflictions, no matter the source, in order to achieve freedom.

Historians have pointed out that flogging was banned in the Union Army in 1861, and that it was unlikely that a private like Trip would have been whipped, at least by someone such as Colonel Shaw, who was known to be a stickler for rules.

The climax of the film is the 54th’s famous attack on Fort Wagner. The footage is brutal and gruesome, and illustrates the horrible truth that war is hell.

The attack on Fort Wagner became a pivotal event in the use of black soldiers by the Union. As described in Wikipedia:

The 54th regiment gained recognition on July 18, 1863, when it spearheaded an assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. At this battle, Colonel Shaw was killed, along with one-hundred and sixteen of his men. Another hundred and fifty-six were wounded or captured. The regiment suffered 272 casualties, which would be the highest total for the 54th in a single engagement during the war.

Although Union forces were not able to hold the fort after taking a portion of the walls in the initial assault, the 54th was widely acclaimed for its valor during the battle. News of the extraordinary performance of the 54th during the assault helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of African-American troops, a key development that President Abraham Lincoln once noted as helping to secure the final victory.

Decades later, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing the U.S. flag as the flag bearer fell, carrying the flag to the enemy ramparts and back, and saying “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!” While other African-Americans had since been granted the award by the time it was presented to Carney, Carney’s is the earliest action for which the Medal of Honor was awarded to an African American.

By the end of the Civil War, about 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy.

The attack on Fort Wagner was immortalized in this lithograph by Louis Kurz and Alexander Allison, Storming Fort Wagner:

The caption at the bottom of the lithograph reads: “Charge of the 54th Mass. Bgt. July 18th 1863. Union (Gen. Gillmore, Com.) Loss: Gen. Strong, Col’s Shaw, Chatfield, Putnam, k’d, Gen. Seymore, w’d 1208 Soldiers killed and w’d Conf. (Gen. Beauregard, Com.) Loss: 16 off. and 300 soldiers.”

For those of you with children, I highly recommend a showing of this excellent movie. One problem with Americans is that, we don’t do nearly enough of the kind of reflection for which holidays like Memorial Day were designed. This movie brings home the idea that freedom is not free. And in an era where young people, young black people especially, seem to be lacking in heroes, this movie highlights several hundred of them.

And if you’re out and about in Boston area, check out the monument to Colonel Shaw and the 54th, constructed 1884–1897 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, on the Boston Common.


And if you’re in Washington, DC, check out the African American Civil War Memorial. The memorial includes a sculpture dedicated to the War’s black soldiers and the freed slaves, as well as a wall that lists the names of all the soldiers who served in the Colored Troops.

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