Publication Date

September 1, 1990

Perspectives Section



  • United States


Military, Visual Culture

Editor’s note: In this month’s Film and Media column historians review two completely different approaches to the Civil War era on film. Both productions are landmarks in reexamining the war from the perspective of our own generation.

On the morning of May 18, 1863, Massachusetts Governor Andrew was informed by Secretary of War Stanton that the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was to report to the Commander of the South, General David Hunter, headquartered at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Later that day, the Governor, with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips at his side, presented the flags to the regiment’s leader Robert Gould Shaw and remarked: “I know not, Mr. Commander, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms, has there been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you.” The spirit of that moment is effectively captured in the Civil War film Glory, a superb treatment of the subject that does not shrink from presenting the horror of war.

Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, foremost among black leaders, thought from the start that the Civil War was a profoundly positive development from the point of view of black people. It was a development, they argued, that would lead inevitably to the arming of slaves to help win their freedom. The reaction of slaves to the advance of Union troops into the South was a more powerful factor than any other in revealing the cogency of that position. Indeed, slavery was threatened from within when slaves in large numbers walked off plantations, in some instances remained to demand wages, or, to reveal aspects of personality that, when not openly defiant, were troublingly unsuspected. Slave disaffection, it can be argued, eventually made possible the recruitment of black troops in the North.

Still, black leaders and their white allies had to fight for the right of Northern blacks to bear arms in the war, and eventually, enough troops were recruited to comprise the 54th that Colonel Shaw, at the urging of Governor Andrew, agreed to head. Educated in Switzerland and at Harvard College, Shaw established a precedent that was followed by young men of other prominent families, but not without suffering some degree of social ostracism, for heading a black unit was considered anathema to most Northerners, many of whom believed, or professed to believe, that black men would not make good soldiers, that when confronted by the enemy they were more likely to throw down their weapons and run.

Actor Matthew Broderick plays Shaw with detachment, determined will and an optimism that as often finds expression in his appearance of quiet calm as through words. The requirements of discipline and the largeness of the objective—that his troops, in battle, demonstrate their manhood right to citizenship—prevented Shaw from relating on familiar terms with his men. It is a delicate balance since they are confronted by various forms of racism, including less pay than white soldiers, that necessitate leadership that will inspire. In the film, Shaw proves equal to the occasion.

Not expected to see combat initially, the 54th arrived at Port Royal, South Carolina, in late May and, following a few weeks of training, the 54th handled itself well in a sharp skirmish on James Island. Before that battle, the regiment was ordered to sack and burn the small Sea Island town of Darien, Georgia, which was particularly distasteful to Colonel Shaw. Much of the action of the film up to this point concerned the tension among the black soldiers growing out of the radicalism of an ex-slave named Trip, who is portrayed brilliantly by actor Denzel Washington. Trip is portrayed as having little faith in the American Dream and a frightfully scarred back from numerous previous whippings that explains why.

The crux of the film in interpersonal terms concerns conflict between Trip, Colonel Shaw, a Sergeant Major Rawlins, and a young black soldier named Thomas. Actor Morgan Freeman, in an impressive performance, effortlessly fuses pragmatism and patriotism in Rawlins’ character. Though fictional, like Trip and Rawlins, Thomas is perhaps less credible, for he is a friend of Shaw’s from Massachusetts whose refined intellect and sensitive spirit are informed by reading Hawthorne and transcendental philosophy. Historical purists should not be overly concerned with this aspect of the film, however, for it should be recalled that youthful Charlotte Forten, of a prominent Pennsylvania black family, was also in the Sea Islands teaching ex-slaves and was as precious in sensibility as any young white woman of her era.

Glory as a whole builds toward an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate outpost of Fort Sumter, the mainstay of the harbor defenses of Charleston. It is an assault that tested the mettle of the 54th and is used as a measure of the future role of black troops in the war. But the film, for all its success in treating the attack on Wagner, does not make it clear that the prolonged bombardment that preceded it failed to soften up the Fort, which meant that the black troops of the 54th were exposed to a degree of devastation that could not possibly have been foreseen. Hence, their resolve under fire was the more remarkable, virtually an act of martyrdom for the hundreds who lay dead before Confederate guns.

The Confederates buried Colonel Shaw, who was shot with others at the height of the charge, in a common grave with black troops. His body is shown sliding into the grave with Trip’s body following close behind in symbolic solidarity.

One of the ironies of Glory is that, given its setting in South Carolina, which was at the time the richest area in the nation for black cultural expression, there is virtually nothing, apart from a few Gullah-sounding words, about the culture of South Carolina slaves. It was a culture, in its spiritual dimension, that produced the nation’s greatest body of folk tales and, proliferating everywhere it seems, the Ring Shout, in which the Negro spiritual was created together with motions of sacred dance that would have profound implications for secular dance in subsequent years. Moreover, it was the area in which African slaves taught whites how to cultivate rice.

But Glory is sufficient in itself, and the filmmakers were right in not trying to graft onto it aspects of southern black culture to which many of the men in the 54th would not have, historically, related.

Thanks to units such as the 54th, close to 200,000 blacks, most of whom were ex-slaves, eventually fought in the Civil War. They contributed, together with hundreds of thousands of slaves who left the plantations, to the Union victory. However, their efforts to secure their rights to citizenship on equal terms with whites did not succeed, nor did such efforts in wars that followed in which blacks fought as heroically as others without being properly credited for their sacrifices and contributions.

We need more quality films about blacks in the Civil War, especially ones that might, with great care, treat cultural as well as military dimensions of the War. In this regard, the beau ideal would seem to be a film based on Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s classic Army Life in a Black Regiment, in which the cultural elements of slave life, including the most important of slave rituals, the Ring Shout, together with the military elements of the work offer possibilities for truly pioneering filmmaking. But in its radical departure from previous films of war in which blacks appear, Glory is likely to stand for some time as a landmark in its own right.

P. Sterling Stuckey is professor of American history and religious studies at the University of California, Riverside.