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The Movies: Glory and the Larger Truth in Fiction

September 2019

Much of it was fictional, but "Glory" was one of the most powerful and accurate movies ever made about the Civil War

Can movies teach history? For Glory, the answer is yes. Not only was it the first feature film to treat the role of black soldiers in the American Civil War, but it is also one of the most powerful and historically accurate movies ever made about that war. After more than fifty years on the screen, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are still teaching false and stereo¬typed lessons about slavery. Glory has helped to restore the image of courageous black soldiers that prevailed in the North during the latter war years, before the process of romanticizing the Old South obscured it. Glory tells the story of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from its organization during the winter of 1862-1863 to its climactic assault the following summer against Fort Wagner, a massive earthworks guarding the approach to Charleston harbor. The Union’s naval effort to capture Charleston failed earlier in 1863—and so did the assault on Fort Wagner led by the Fifty-fourth, which suffered nearly fifty percent casualties. Among those killed was Col. Robert Gould Shaw, Glory’s protagonist, who died leading his men over the parapet. However, if in this sense the attack was a failure, in a more profound sense it was a success of historic proportions. The unflinching behavior of the regiment in the face of an overwhelming hail of lead and iron answered the skeptic’s question, Will the Negro fight? It demonstrated the courage of the race to millions of white people in both the North and the South who had doubted whether black men would stand in combat against soldiers of the self-styled master race. The recruitment of black combat troops was still regarded as a risky experiment when the Fifty-fourth’s six hundred men moved out at dusk on July 18 to attack Fort Wagner. During the next few hours they more than justified that experiment. Forced by the ocean on one side and swamps on the other to approach the fort along several hundred yards of narrow, exposed beach, the regiment moved steadily forward through bursting shells and murderous musketry. Losing men every step of the way, they nevertheless continued right up the ramparts and breached the parapet before the immense strength of the works stopped them. The portrayal of this attack in Glory is the most realistic combat footage in any Civil War movie. The white officers of the Fifty-fourth represented the elite of New England society. Some, including Shaw, were Harvard alumni and sons of prominent families. Several, also including Shaw, had already fought with white regiments during the first two years of the war. Antislavery in conviction, they had willingly risked stigma and ridicule to cast their lot with a black regiment. The Confederate defenders of Fort Wagner stripped Shaw’s corpse and dumped it into an unmarked mass grave with the bodies of his black soldiers. When the Union commander sent a flag of truce across the lines a day later to request the return of Shaw’s body (a customary practice for high-ranking officers killed in the Civil War), a Confederate officer replied contemptuously, “We have buried him with his niggers.” The performance of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts at Fort Wagner not only advanced the liberation of slaves but also helped to liberate President Lincoln from certain constitutional and political constraints. These restraints had earlier inhibited the president from making this war for the Union a war against slavery, an institution that Lincoln had often branded a “monstrous injustice.” If it is not literally true, as the movie’s final caption claims, that the bravery of the Fifty-fourth at Fort Wagner caused Congress to authorize more black regiments—this had happened months earlier—the example set by the Fifty-fourth did help transform potential into policy. However, Glory does not go into detail about the impact of the battle on northern opinion, nor does it provide much political context for the black soldier issue. In fact, the movie ends with the attack on Fort Wagner, although the Fifty- fourth continued to serve throughout the war, fighting in several more battles and skirmishes. Except for Shaw, the principal characters in the film are fictional: There was no real Maj. Cabot Forbes: no Emerson-quoting black boyhood friend of Shaw’s named Thomas Searles; no tough Irish Sgt. Maj. Mulcahy; no black Sgt. (and father figure) John Rawlins; no brash, hardened Private Trip. Indeed, there is a larger fiction involved here. The movie gives the impression that most of the Fifty-fourth’s soldiers were former slaves. In fact, this atypical regiment was recruited mainly in the North, so most of the men had always been free. Some came from prominent northern black families; two of Frederick Douglass’s sons were among the first to sign up. The older son was sergeant major of the regiment from the start. (The regiment’s young adjutant, wounded in the Fort Wagner assault, was Garth Wilkinson James. brother of William and Henry James.) Real historical figures such as these could have provided the frame¬work for a dramatic and important story about the relationship of northern blacks to slavery and the war—and about the wartime ideals of New England culture. But the story that producer Freddie Fields, director Edward Zwick, and screenwriter Kevin Jarre chose to tell is not simply about the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts but about blacks in the Civil War. Most of the 178,000 black soldiers (and 10.000 sailors) were slaves until a few months, even days, before they joined up. They fought for their freedom and for the freedom of their families and their people. This was the most revolutionary feature of a war that wrought a revolution in America by freeing four million slaves and uprooting the social structure of half the country. Arms in the hands of slaves had been the nightmare of southern whites for generations. At Fort Wagner, the nightmare came true. Fighting for the Union bestowed upon former slaves a new dignity, self-respect, and militancy, which helped them achieve equal citizenship and political rights—for a time—after the war. Many of the events described in Glory are also fictional: the incident of the racist quartermaster who initially refuses to distribute shoes to Shaw’s men; the whipping Trip receives as punishment for going AWOL; the regiment’s dramatic refusal on principle to accept less pay than white soldiers, which shames Congress into equalizing the pay of black soldiers (this actually happened, but at Shaw’s initiative, not Trip’s); the religious meeting the night before the assault on Fort Wagner. However, there is a larger truth. Glory’s point is made symbolically in one of its most surreal and, at first glance, irrelevant scenes. During a training exercise, Shaw gallops his horse along a path flanked by stakes, each holding aloft a watermelon (in February in Massachusetts?). Shaw slashes right and left with his sword, slicing and smashing every water¬melon. The point becomes clear when we recall the identification of watermelons with the “darky” stereotype. If the image of smashed water¬melons in Glory can replace that of moonlight and magnolias in Gone with the Wind as America’s cinematic version of the Civil War, it will be a great gain for truth.