Glory and the 54th Mass

 John Wilson, a painter from Cincinnati, Ohio, had this portrait made a month after he was promoted to sergeant major in May 1864

Glory recounts the heroic actions of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The 54th was one of the first regiments comprised of Black soldiers during the War if the Rebellion. The Colonel and commanding officer of the 54th was Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick. Shaw came from an elite Boston abolitionist family who was well connected throughout the country and the world. Shaw was wounded at the Battle of Antietam in 1862 and returns home to recover from his wounds. He finds out that his name was submitted to be the colonel of the newly formed 54th Mass. The prevailing belief in the 19th century was that black men would not make good soldiers and would be cowards in combat. The actions of the 54th would shatter that myth. This film demonstrates the human condition to the fullest. Man battles society, man and self all at the same time. The men of the 54th Mass battled not only the rebels in front of them but northern racism at their backs. The internal struggles with Shaw and his number two Cabot Forbes play heavily in the formation of character.

The men of the regiment face adversity at every corner, they are first denied shoes then they are denied equal pay. Black soldiers had to be twice as good to be considered half as good. In one of the most moving scenes Trip played by Denzel Washington leads the men in a protest against unfair pay. They refuse pay until they are given the same rate as white troops. The men of the 54th were joined in their protest by their white officers including Col. Shaw.

Shaw beings his journey with the men with a sense of ambivalence. He is surprised the Black soldiers march as well as white soldiers.  But through his interactions with the enlisted men the Black soldiers, Shaw begins to change. The movie allows the audience insights into race relations during the war and human nature.

The crescendo of the Block Buster hit was 54th’s assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston harbor. The 54th requested the honor of leading the attack not because it would be easy but the men and their officers wanted a chance to prove themselves capable soldiers. The evening assault claimed the lives of many men including Shaw who was buried with him men after the battle.  The heroism and sacrifice made by the men of the 54th convinced the War Department to recruit more Black men into the army. By the end of the war over 200,000 African-Americans would serve in the Union army. The assault on Fort Wagner was a Union defeat and accomplishes little, but the symbolic nature of Black men striking a blow at slavery and the idea of humans fight for liberty, freedom, and justice is written all over this story.


Glory. Dir. Edward Zwick. Perf. Matthew Broderick, et al. 1989. DVD.

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