US History through Film

Glory

 

*In the battle of Fredericksburg, the Union suffered over 13,000 casualties, compared to about 4,200 for the Confederacy.  Burnside retreated across the river on 15 December, 1862, and was replaced soon afterwards by Joseph Hooker, who had also led forces at Antietam. 

 

*In the New Year, the Union Army began accepting African-American volunteers.  About 180,000 Coloured troops ultimately served during the way, often bravely despite poor treatment by much of the US Army (including unequal pay) and the knowledge that they would be killed if captured by the South. 

 

*This decision was also controversial in the North, where prejudice against African-Americans made some people fear giving them guns.  Furthermore, many Northerners had gone to war to preserve the Union, and some were not eager to die to free the slaves.  In particular, some members of the Northern working class worried that freed slaves would come North and compete with them for jobs, since they would presumably be willing to work for lower wages.  This fear was particular acute among Irish immigrants, who had come to the United States in large numbers starting in the mid-1840s, and who already faced a great deal of discrimination.

 

--Introduce Glory


-Glory was released in 1989.  It tells the story of the creation and early battles of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first African-American units formed in the US Army (the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment was slightly older, and some individual officers occupying parts of the South had formed Black units on their own earlier).  The movie was based in part on the book One Gallant Rush, published in 1965 by Peter Burchard about the 54th Massachusetts.  Glory was also partly inspired by the book Lay this Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein, published in 1973 about the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, which was unveiled in 1897 and depicts the first commander of the 54th Massachusetts and his men.  The movie also draws from the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, although some of the letters that are read as voice-over narration throughout the film, were actually taken from Army Life in a Black Regiment, an 1870 book by Thomas Higginson, who commanded the 1st South Carolina Regiment during the Civil War.

 

-The movie opens in September, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam, where Robert Gould Shaw encounters combat for the first time.  After returning home to Boston, he is asked to take command of the 54th Massachusetts, which would be formed in March, 1863 (so that when the movie shows them celebrating Christmas together in 1862, that is not correct).  Furthermore, originally, the Governor of Massachusetts meant to recruit only free African-Americans, so the movie’s portrayal of many of the soldiers as former slaves is also inaccurate.  The movie continues through the first major battle fought by the 54th Massachusetts.

 

-Overall, the costumes and props are accurate.

 

-The movie was primarily filmed in Georgia and in Massachusetts, although footage from a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania was also used, and so in the early battle scenes the grass is sometimes green and sometimes it is brown, where footage filmed in different places at different times of the year was edited together.

 

-Robert Gould Shaw is the main character in the movie, and is based fairly accurately on a real person who was a member of a family of prominent abolitionists.  The movie does leave out that he got married during the time the movie is set.

 

-The other major characters in the movie are fictional (although several of the secondary characters are real), and some historians have criticised the fact that the main African-American characters in a movie about the heroism of African-American soldiers are either completely made up or heavily fictionalised.  In particular, it is unfortunate that the movie leaves out Sergeant William Carney, one of the first African-Americans to win the Medal of Honor.  The 54th Massachusetts also included two of Frederick Douglass’s sons, Charles and Lewis.  Charles later transferred to the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry to become its 1st sergeant, while Lewis was the sergeant major of the 54th and was wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner.  Frederick Douglass, junior worked as a recruiter of Black soldiers for the Army.

 

-Cabot Forbes is a fictional friend of Robert Shaw who becomes second-in-command of the 54th Massachusetts.  He is loosely based on Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Hallowell, who would later command the 54th Massachusetts himself after surviving a serious wound in the Battle of Fort Wagner.

 

-Thomas Searles is a fictional free black man from Boston who has known Shaw and Forbes for many years.  He is the first volunteer for the 54th Massachusetts.

 

-John Rawlins is a fictional former slave who works as a gravedigger and then enlists in the 54th Massachusetts.

 

-Jupiter Sharts is a fictional former slave who enlists in the 54th Massachusetts.

 

-Silas Trip is a fictional former slave who enlists in the 54th Massachusetts. 

 

-Sergeant-Major Mulcahy is a fictional Irish character who trains the new volunteers in the 54th Massachusetts.

 

--Show Glory

 

-#3 shows how in both the United States and Confederate armies, soldiers often elected their own non-commissioned and commissioned officers up through the rank of captain, and sometimes up to the rank of colonel.  This practise was significantly reduced in the US Army by 1863, because men who campaigned to become officers often did not end up disciplining their men effectively, but it was never completely eliminated in the US Army and remained common in the Confederate army until the end of the war.

 

-#5 is correct.  The Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in the Border States or in most parts of other Southern states that had already been re-occupied by the Union. This was done to try to keep those areas loyal, and because the Constitution still protected slavery as a matter of property law.

 

-#8 is mostly correct.  On 30 August, 1861, Union General John C. Fremont issued a proclamation basically freeing all the slaves in the still-loyal state of Missouri, but Lincoln countermanded the order and relieved Fremont of command.  On 9 May, 1862, General David Hunter declared all slaves in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida to be ‘forever free,’ but Lincoln revoked that, too, partly because there were a few pro-Union slave-owners in the area who complained.  However, back on 27 May, 1861, General Benjamin Butler had declared that escaping male slaves who reached Union lines would be considered contraband—war materials subject to seizure as a war measure—and not be returned to slavery, and Congress confirmed this through a series of Confiscation Acts, allowing the Union Army to free slaves owned by pro-Confederate Southerners in rebellious areas.

 

-#9 shows Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who had become famous as a writer and public speaker, eventually purchasing the freedom of himself and his family.  Two of his sons joined the 54th Massachusetts and his third son recruited other Black volunteers for the Army.

 

-#10 and #11 are true, although the regiment was not officially formed until March, 1863, a little later than shown in the movie, and was originally planned to include of free-born African-Americans, because the governor of Massachusetts wanted the 54th to be an elite unit, and he worried that former slaves would not be as good as freeborn men.  However, it was hard to find enough freeborn Black men in Massachusetts, and eventually some former slaves were included, too.  Also, Shaw was asked to take command in a letter, not at a party, and initially he did not want to, as he did not want to leave his current regiment.

 

-#12 is a result of many Southern states making it illegal to teach slaves to read, out of fears they would read abolitionist literature.  Besides, there was not much reason for a slave-owner to teach most slaves to read, anyway.  Furthermore, education was not especially widespread in the South in general.

 

-#16 is entirely possible.  In both the Northern and Southern armies, many soldiers being trained did not know their left foot from their right foot, and so the drill sergeants would tie a some hay to the left foot and some straw to the right; then, setting the men to march, they would chant, ‘Hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot’ until everybody had caught on. A common name for a new recruit in those days was ‘strawfoot.’  In the 21st Century, of course, most people know their left from their right, but many do not know the difference between hay (which still has seeds on it and is used as feed) and straw (just the stalk of wheat, used for bedding but not for feed).

 

-#17 is true.  Many Irish immigrants worried that free Blacks would compete with them for low-paying jobs, and resented them, even more than most people at the time, when prejudice was common.

 

-#18-20 are all true, and many Black soldiers who surrendered were massacred rather than being imprisoned.

 

-#21 is not quite right--they were .577 calibre--but it is true that both sides in the War used many British-built Enfield rifle muskets.

 

-#22 was pretty common, as Black troops were often not trusted in combat, as it was assumed they would be cowardly.  Many White people were also not comfortable giving Black men guns.

 

-#27 is partly true; Fredericksburg was a terrible loss for the Union, but Shaw would not have been with the 54th Massachusetts yet, as they had not yet officially been formed.

 

-#29 shows Trip being flogged for desertion (although he could have been executed for that).  For the purpose of filming the scene, the actor (Denzel Washington) was actually whipped with a special whip that would hurt, but could not actually cut him.  To get the best possible reaction, the director told the man whipping him to whip a longer and harder than planned, so that the tear shed in the scene is real.

 

-#32 does not even show how badly the Black soldiers were short-changed.  Not only were they paid $10 a month rather than $13, but they had $3 deducted for clothing (while White soldiers were not charged a clothing allowance), so that Black soldiers actually fought for $7 a month, although in 1864 Congress voted to pay them equally and to give them back pay for the months they had been paid less.

 

-#33-34 are basically true, although it was actually Colonel Shaw's idea that no one in the regiment accept pay as long as the Black soldiers were not paid equally.

 

-#35 mentions Harper's Weekly, which was one of the most widely-read and influential magazines in America.  Although it had avoided taking a strong stand on slavery before the Civil War to avoid losing customers in the South, once the War began, Harper's Weekly became strongly pro-Lincoln, pro-Union, and anti-slavery.  However, the reporter Edward Pierce who appears in the movie, although a real reporter whom Shaw did interact with, actually wrote for the New York Daily Tribune.

 

-#36 shows John Rawlins promoted to the rank of Sergeant-Major.  This was the highest non-commissioned rank in the US Army at the time.  There was only one per regiment, and in reality, the Sergeant-Major of the 54th Massachusetts at this time was Lewis Douglass, the third and youngest son of Frederick Douglass, who was badly wounded in the Battle of Fort Wagner, but survived.  There would not be a Black commissioned officer in the US Army until former slave Henry Flipper graduated from West Point in 1877 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.  Even after that, Black officers would be very rare until well into the 20th Century (and the Navy and Marine Corps would not have any Black commissioned officers until late in World War II).

 

-#37-42 introduce Colonel James Montgomery, who did have command over the 54th Massachusetts.  He had always been strongly opposed to slavery and had fought in Bleeding Kansas.  As stated in the movie, he had earlier lived in Kentucky, although he was actually born in Ohio and moved to Kentucky with his parents at the age of 22.  He later moved to Kansas where he fought against pro-slavery forces, and in 1859 he even considered leading a raid to free John Brown from prison before he could be executed, but did not because there was too much snow in western Pennsylvania at that time, although it might not have mattered, because another man who had fought in Kansas managed to sneak into the prison where John Brown was being held and offered to help him escape, but Brown refused, feeling he was too old (59) to live a life on the run and preferring to die as a martyr.  The depiction of the destruction of Darien, Georgia, is fairly accurate, although by the time the town was set on fire, the residents had already fled the town.  Montgomery thought slave-owners must be punished for their sins, and really did say that Southerners would 'be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old.'

 

-#44 is basically correct; Shaw was able to get his men into battle thanks in part to the influence of his father and other prominent abolitionists he knew.

 

-#48-49 portray General Charles Harker deeply corrupt, and show Shaw using this to blackmail him into sending the 54th Massachusetts into battle.  In reality, General Harker was much younger than shown in the movie (he was only about 25 at the time) and is not known to have been involved in anything illegal or unethical.  He died in combat on Kennessaw Mountain in Georgia on 27 July, 1864.

 

-#50 mentions the 54th Massachusetts's first battle, although not by name.  It was the Battle of Grimball's Landing on James Island, South Carolina, on 16 July, 1863.  Union forces had landed on James Island to try to draw some Confederate forces away from the defence of Fort Wagner, and some did come to attack.  Union forces, including the 54th Massachusetts, held off the Confederate attack, with the 54th losing 14 men killed, 17 wounded, and 12 captured.

 

-#52 are both very important Union victories in the War, sometimes considered the turning point of the War.

 

-#56 is true--Fort Wagner (also known as Battery Wagner) was one of the forts defending Charleston Harbour, although at the time of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, it was actually defended by about 1,800 Confederates, even more than the 1,000 stated in #57.

 

-#60 is true; Shaw did give his personal letters to the reporter Edward Pierce, who took them back to his family after the battle.

 

-#62 is close, but not quite right:  the person who asked the question was General George Crockett Strong who was in overall command of the assault, and Colonel Shaw was the man who responded.  When the flag bearer did fall, a Black soldier, Sergeant William Carney, grabbed the flag and carried it all the way to the bulwarks of Fort Wagner. He remained there under enemy fire until the 54th was forced to retreat. Sergeant Carney struggled back to Union lines with the flag, receiving four wounds from which he recovered. This was the first action for which a Black soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor.  General Strong was wounded in the battle himself, and died of tetanus twelve days later.  The depiction of the battle itself is fairly accurate, although the Union soldiers are shown approaching the fort from the North, when they actually approached it from the South--it was filmed that way because the lighting was better.

 

-#66 shows all the men killed in the attack on Fort Wagner being buried in mass graves, with White officers buried with their Black soldiers.  The Confederates considered this an insult, but Shaw's parents said they considered it an honour.  However, Shaw was not buried in his full uniform--most of his things were stripped from him, both as an insult and to be kept as souvenirs, although a Confederate officer managed to purchase Shaw's sword and sash from the man who had originally looted them, and had them sent to Shaw's parents.

 

-#67 is not quite true, although it is close--270 of the 600 men who charged Fort Wagner on 18 July, 1863 were killed, wounded or captured:  Colonel Shaw was one of the first to be killed, and 29 of his men died in the attack, too; 24 more later died of their wounds, while 15 were captured, 52 went missing in action and never accounted for, and 149 were wounded.  Furthermore, many soldiers survived and the flag was not captured.  Still, a 45% casualty rate is still very high, and was the highest the 54th ever suffered.  Furthermore, considering that the 54th Massachusetts was just one of fourteen Union regiments involved in the attack, it is thought that 1,515 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing in the battle, and the commander of Fort Wagner, General Johnson Hagood, stated that he buried 800 men in mass graves.

 

---The final text of the movie also states that Fort Wagner was never taken.  That is not entirely true.  Although it was never captured in a direct assault, the United States Navy maintained a two-month bombardment of the fort starting before the first assault by the Army and continuing until the Confederates abandoned the fort on 7 September, 1863.

 

*After the great defeat at Fredericksburg, General Burnside was replaced by replacement, ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker.  Under pressure to achieve something, he soon moved against Lee, and was defeated at Chancellorsville, Virginia on 2-3 May, 1863, when Lee sent half of his army, under Stonewall Jackson, to march around Hooker’s army and attack from one side, while Lee attacked from the other side, nearly surrounding Hooker’s army and ultimately forcing him to retreat despite having far more men than the Confederates.

 

*However, after the first day of fighting, Stonewall Jackson and some of his staff rode out into the night to scout out the battlefield.  When they returned, a North Carolina unit in their own corps did not recognise them and fired upon them.  Jackson was wounded three times, and had to have his arm amputated.  Lee said ‘he has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.’  Jackson’s arm was buried on the battlefield, and Jackson died a week later.

 

*Hooker was soon replaced by George Meade.

 

*Although saddened and concerned by the loss of Jackson, Lee was very confident after the glorious victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.  He decided one again to invade Pennsylvania, threaten Washington, D.C., and force Lincoln to negotiate a peace.  However, his own scouts did not keep him informed of where the Union Army was.

 

*The Confederate Army collided with the Union Army accidentally at Gettysburg on 1 July, 1863, where they fought perhaps the most important battle of the war and certainly the largest battle ever fought in North America.

 

*Over the three days of the battle, the US Army fielded 83,000 men and the Confederate Army had 75,000, although on both sides units arrived a few at a time, and had either side had better information on the other's disposition, they might have been able to pick them off one regiment or division at a time.

 

*Throughout the battle, Lee’s corps commanders often failed to follow his orders correctly.  Had they done so, Lee might have won the battle, and changed the course of the war.  Instead, he was defeated with great loss of life, and on the 4th of July,  the Army of Northern Virginia began a retreat to Virginia trailed by a 17-mile long wagon train loaded with supplies and wounded men.  They never left Virginia again.

 

*The total estimated US casualties were 23,000 with an estimated 28,000 Confederate casualties, or 51,000 American casualties in all.   This was the largest battle ever fought in North America.

 

*Furthermore, on 4 July, 1863, after trying to take it over for fourteen month, Ulysses S. Grant finally sized Vicksburg, Mississippi, gaining the North control of the Mississippi River and cutting the South in half.

 



This page last updated 12 February, 2020.
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