Teaching & Learning History

Do you want some popcorn with your history?

Glory, 1989

Hollywood loves history. Over the years there have been countless movies that attempt to historically portray actual events and people that lived them. But inevitably movie makers have to compromise historical accuracy due to time and other storytelling constraints. Our assignment was to select a feature film that had a historical theme. For me it was an easy choice, I selected Glory, the 1989 Civil War film about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first all African-American unit in the Union Army. I was able to rent it online off of YouTube. The movie was directed by Edward Zwick, and co-produced by Tri-Star Pictures and Freddie Fields Productions. The popular film starred Matthew Broderick as the real life Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th’s white commanding officer. It also starred Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman as fictional characters representing the African American soldiers wanting to fight for their new found freedom.

The movie, which won three Academy Awards, is based on the books Lay This Laurel (1973) by Lincoln Kirstein, and One Gallant Rush (1965) by Peter Burchard and Shaw’s letters to his family during the war. The story traces the creation of the 54th regiment in early 1863 to their heroic fate at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The film’s major themes includes the battle against racism facing both the white and black members of the 54th regiment, and the need to prove one’s worth sometimes requires the ultimate sacrifice.

There are many significant moments in the film, but I have selected two worth noting. The first occurs around 55:00 into the movie, when the soldiers are lining up to get paid for the first time are told that they are not going to get paid the same as white soldiers. The 54th soldiers start to protest and refuse to accept their pay. This scene is based on historic fact. But the movie producers added a dramatic moment when the white officers, especially Colonel Shaw, fearing a mutiny fire a warning shot in the air, and show their support by agreeing not to accept their payments as well. Fictionalized or not, it dramatically captures the spirit of the 54th and how both the white and black members had to “fight” to be accepted and allowed to fight.

The second moment takes place near the end of the film (1:52:00) and it is the dramatic conclusion (spoiler alert you might not want to read the next paragraph if you want to watch the movie). The movie is entitled “Glory” since it is what the 54th regiment was fighting for equal opportunity, to earn their glory. The second attack on Fort Wagner was a real event. However, the scene in the movie when the African American troops, led by a white officer, breach the Confederate ramparts is very Hollywood. In a dramatic moment, the soldiers are able to demonstrate all they were able to learn through training and how they became an effective fighting force. For a brief moment it appears that they are going to make it, but unfortunately historical accuracy prevents a different Hollywood outcome.

The movie Glory, produced in 1989, is still popular. Its theme of racial integration and the military is still relevant. Throughout American history the problem of asking those to fight for their country, despite not being treated equally, is persistent. Many Americans are still unaware of the contribution African American troops had in the Civil War. Over two hundred thousand U.S. colored troops fought in the war. The battle scenes are realistic, especially the opening scene of the Battle of Antietam. There are several opportunities in the film for teachers to show that will stimulate conversations and encourage their students to think historically. In regard to some of the questions that I might encourage the students to ask:

  1. Over 160 years later scholars are still debating the cause of the war, states rights, slavery, or both? At the start of the war in 1861, Union soldiers may have not be certain, but how does the movie represent the attitudes of the lead character Colonel Shaw?
  2. Many northerners did not believe that African American soldiers could be taught to fight, and they w0uld not be willing to lay down their lives. What does the title “Glory” mean and how does the movie portray the real life characters and fictional characters in their struggle for “Glory.”
  3. Research the regimental histories of several USCT regiments. What battles did they fight in? How well did they fight? After the war, Union veteran organizations allowed USCT members to join. What does this finally say about how white Union soldiers felt about African American soldiers and their military record?

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