Why ‘Glory’ Still Resonates More Than Three Decades Later

Newly added to Netflix, the Civil War movie reminds the nation that black Americans fought for their own emancipation

54th Massachusetts in 'Glory'
Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his role as one of the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts. United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Thirty-one years ago, the Hollywood movie Glory debuted in theaters, garnering positive reviews from critics and historians as it told the Civil War story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-Black regiment raised in the North. Although it had middling success at the box office, the film became a stalwart of high school history classes and its popularity will only expand with its recent addition to the Netflix library.

The historical epic’s appearance on the streaming giant comes at the end of a summer that witnessed the sometimes-violent removal of roughly 75 Confederate monuments amidst nationwide protests under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. But even as the story of the black Americans who served in the United States army during the Civil War becomes more widely known, new viewers of the movie may wonder where fact and faction intersect in Glory.

The movie, directed by Ed Zwick, stars Matthew Broderick as the real-life figure Colonel Robert G. Shaw. The supporting cast includes Morgan Freeman as Sergeant John Rawlins, Andre Braugher as the well-educated Thomas Searles, and Denzel Washington as the escaped slave Trip. (All the black characters are fictional, though some have suggested that Searles is based on one of Frederick Douglass’ sons, who served in the regiment.)

Glory (1989) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The overall trajectory of Glory hews closely to the historical record; the script relies heavily on Shaw’s letters home during his time in the army (a title card opening the movie refers to the correspondence.) Over the course of just over two hours, viewers move from Battle of Antietam to the regiment’s military training to the deep South of Georgia and South Carolina. The movie's climax, involving the 54th’s failed attack at Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863, depicts a final victory over adversity and a collective sacrifice around the flag. Shaw is killed attempting to lead his men in a final assault as is Trip, who falls having finally embraced the regimental colors.

When Glory was first released in 1989, it challenged a deeply entrenched popular memory of the war that centered the conflict around brave white soldiers and left little room to grapple with the tough questions of slavery and emancipation. The film’s most important contribution is its success in challenging this narrow interpretation by reminding white Americans of the service of roughly 200,000 Black Americans in Union ranks and their role in helping to win the war and end slavery.

By 1863, the outcome of the war was far from certain. Following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1 of that year, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the raising of Black troops to help defeat the Confederacy. There was no more enthusiastic supporter of this policy than Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, who immediately commenced with the raising of the 54th Massachusetts, along with two other all-black units.

Shaw was a young 25-year-old at the time, and Broderick ably emotes the challenges the colonel faced overcoming his own racial prejudices while in command of the regiment, despite his family’s abolitionist credentials. Yet the movie falls short in capturing the extent of Shaw’s ambivalence toward being offered the command of the all-black regiment. In the movie, it’s played as a question that demanded but a few moments of reflection, when in reality Shaw initially rejected the governor’s commission citing concerns about whether commanding black soldiers would advance his own career and reputation in the army. His letters home throughout the first half of the war reveal more ambiguity about emancipation than the film acknowledges.

In a letter written to his mother following the battle of Antietam, Shaw questioned Lincoln’s issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. “For my part,” Shaw wrote, “I can’t see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been, there remain no slaves, and the Proclamation will not free them where we don’t go.”

Darien, Georgia, burning
A scene from the movie of the real-life burning of Darien, Georgia. United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the most accurate scenes in the movie is the burning of Darien, Georgia, on June 11, 1863. Shaw and his men accompanied Colonel James Montgomery’s force and did, as depicted, help to set fire to the town. Shaw was, in fact, concerned that the incident would reflect negatively on his men and prevent them from ever having the opportunity to fight in battle. The movie Shaw’s threat to expose General David Hunter’s illegal activity has no basis in truth, but more importantly, his relationship with Montgomery was much more complex than that written. Shaw respected Montgomery’s commitment to his abolitionist principles and belief that Southern society needed to be completely remade, despite his racist outlook on the men under his command. In a letter to his wife, Shaw described Montgomery as a “very conscientious man” and later to his mother admitted that “he is very attractive to me, and indeed I have taken a fancy to him.”

Notably, the movie also ignores the fact that Shaw spent significant time away from his men during the war, particularly during the time when they would have been training, as he was engaged to and later married Anna Kneeland Haggerty on May 2, 1863, just weeks before the regiment was scheduled to ship out to Beaufort, South Carolina.

Among its other dramatic licenses is the depiction of the regiment as made up primarily of the formerly enslaved, a creative choice that highlights a transition from slavery to freedom. While the story of emancipated men becoming soldiers and fighting for their freedom provides a powerful narrative that was indeed true of most black regiments, the 54th Massachusetts was made up primarily of free black men born in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. In contrast to scenes that show Shaw struggling to procure weapons, food, uniforms or other supplies, the soldiers lacked very little owing to Governor Andrew’s commitment to black enlistment.

In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, Washington’s Trip is whipped by an Irish drill sergeant for leaving camp without permission in front of the entire regiment. The sight of a bare-backed former slave with old whipping marks still visible certainly works to stir the emotions of viewers, but had little basis in fact as the army had already banned the practice of flogging.

What these deviations from the historical record do accomplish, however, is reinforcing the truth that black soldiers experienced dangers on the battlefield and racial discrimination that white enlisted men never faced. Delivering this message is another of Glory’s key additions to the public’s understanding of the United States Colored Troops. These men were subject to racial taunts and abuse by white soldiers and were forced to engage in manual labor by officers who didn’t believe they had the skill or bravery to engage in combat.

This discrimination extended to the government’s decision to pay black men $10 per month (as compared to white soldiers’ $13). This policy is briefly addressed by the movie when Colonel Shaw joins his men in tearing up their pay vouchers. The scene offers another opportunity for Shaw to work through his own prejudices and bond with his men, but leaves viewers with the question of whether the policy was ever discontinued. It was not.

The 54th Massachusetts and other Black regiments continued to protest their unequal pay following Shaw’s death in July 1863 and through much of 1864. Even Governor Andrew’s offer to pay the $3 difference out of state funds was met with a stern refusal by the regiment. Discipline deteriorated in the 54th Massachusetts and other regiments as men engaged in insubordinate behavior in response to their unequal pay. In April 1864, 75 men in the 55th Massachusetts flirted with open mutiny by appealing to President Lincoln for immediate assistance. Congress finally discontinued the policy in the summer of 1864, but not before a soldier in the 55th Massachusetts was executed for striking his commander twice in the face after refusing to follow an order.

While Glory presents the regiment’s failed assault on Battery Wagner as its greatest achievement, their extended protest against unequal pay helps to align the service of Black soldiers within the broader history of civil rights, and perhaps is an even stronger connection to modern-day protests against racial injustice.

The movie also leaves little to the imagination in exposing the horrors of Civil War combat, but only alludes to the full range of dangers experienced by black soldiers on the battlefield. Black soldiers that met the enemy on Civil War battlefields were massacred on more than one occasion (most notably at Fort Pillow and the Crater in 1864) after being captured by Confederates, who viewed them as slaves in rebellion rather than soldiers that were protected by the rules of war. Some were even sold into slavery rather than sent to prison camps. White officers like Shaw also risked being executed for inciting slave rebellion.

The final scene in which Confederates bury Shaw along with the rest of his now shoeless men in a mass grave brings the story to a fitting close by suggesting that he and his men managed to triumph over racism within the ranks in a war that ultimately led to Confederate defeat, the preservation of the Union and a "new birth of freedom." (The regiment’s story continues off screen, as it saw military action through the end of the war and remained stationed in South Carolina until December 1865, when it returned home to be decommissioned.)

Viewers are left to reflect on the image of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' beautiful monument to Shaw and his regiment, located across from the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Dedicated in 1897, the relief sculpture commemorates the march through Boston by Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts that is beautifully captured in the movie. Until the 1990s, it remained one of the only public reminders of the service of roughly 200,000 free and formerly enslaved Black men in the United States army during the Civil War.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Confederate monuments blanketed prominent public spaces in cities and towns throughout the South and even beyond. They celebrated the Christian virtue and bravery of the Confederate soldier, as well as generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and denied that the war had anything to do with the preservation of slavery and white supremacy.

Some Confederate monuments went even further and intentionally distorted the history of African Americans by celebrating their supposed loyalty to the Confederate cause. In 1914, for example, the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a large Confederate monument on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery that included the images of the loyal “Mammy” protecting the child of a Confederate officer going off to war and a body servant marching alongside white soldiers.

Altogether, these monuments ignored the steps that African Americans took to undermine the Confederacy by fighting against it and as a result denied that they had any interest in attaining their freedom. This denial helped to reinforce the Jim Crow culture of white supremacy that prevented black Americans from voting and the ability to take part in any public discussion about how to commemorate the past in public spaces.

Glory still offers a powerful reminder of the stakes of the Civil War for communities across the country debating whether to remove their Confederate monuments. The decisions made will go far in determining whether ‘Black Lives Matter’ today and in history.

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