Celluloid Heroes : ‘Glory’ Brings Civil War’s 54th Regiment to Life

In anticipation of the upcoming $2.8-million restoration of the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial on the Boston Common, the Friends of the Public Garden and other stakeholders in the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial Restoration Partnership are presenting two free screenings of “Glory” – the 1989 Academy Award-winning film that tells the story of the first black regiment recruited from the North to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War – on Monday, Sept. 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Boston Common parade ground; and on Wednesday, Sept. 11, at 6:30 p.m. at the Bright Screening Room at Emerson College.

Directed by Edward Zwick, “Glory” stars Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s commanding officer, and Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes and Morgan Freeman as fictionalized, composite members of the 54th  Massachusetts infantry. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three, including Best Supporting Actor for Washington.

On May 28, 1863, the 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white soldiers from the 54th gathered on the Boston Common before marching down Beacon Street past well-wishers, including anti-slavery advocates William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass. That evening, the 54th boarded a steamship to South Carolina, and six days later, they landed in Hilton Head, S.C., where Harriet Tubman, a leading abolitionist who escaped slavery to become the most celebrated “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, served them breakfast.

The 54th went on to fight in Charleston, S.C., in the Battle of Grimball’s Landing on July 16, 1863, and the fateful  Second Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.

When the 54th and other Union regiments waged a frontal assault against Fort Wager, they found themselves overwhelmingly outgunned and outnumbered by Confederate soldiers. Shaw was fatally shot in the chest as he made his way over the fortress wall while 20 more of the 6oo charging soldiers from the 54th were also killed, another 125 injured and 102 more reported missing (and presumed dead).

Former State Rep. Byron Rushing, who will introduce the film on the Common and take part in a discussion following the Emerson College screening, said restoration of the bas-relief memorial created by venerable American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1897 is long overdue. (The monument, which took Saint-Gaudens 14 years to complete, is seen in the ending credit scenes of “Glory.”)

“The main reason this is happening is because the National Parks Service and the Friends of the Public Garden realized what bad shape the memorial, especially its foundation, is in, and they have raised a lot of money to get the restoration work done,” Rushing said.

(The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial Restoration Partnership also includes the City of Boston and the Museum of African American History.)

Rushing suggested viewing “Glory” as a good way for visitors to the Common to brace themselves for the six- to eight-month period when the memorial’s bronze centerpiece will be removed from its home inside the Common on the corner of Beacon and Park streets to undergo an off-site facelift.

“The most important part of this movie is it took the story of the 54th nationally, and some people heard about something they likely wouldn’t have otherwise,” Rushing said. “You couldn’t go to the State House without seeing [the memorial], so white people in Massachusetts pretty much already knew the story…but this was probably first time that white people outside of Massachusetts heard about this.”

Rushing, who credits the film for renewing interest in the Civil War among historians and the general public, speculates that without “Glory,” Tim Burns’ Emmy Award-winning 1990 PBS documentary miniseries “The Civil War” might never have been produced.

“Glory” was also largely embraced by black audiences upon its release, Rushing said, as some black moviegoers who knew descendants of Civil War veterans invited them to see the film.

“Black people at the time were excited,” he said. “They knew about the 54th infantry from learning Black History, but there had never been a Hollywood movie showing a group of black people fighting on the right side. There were no movies about black people fighting in World War I or II, even though there were black regiments fighting in those wars.”

But despite the film’s groundbreaking portrayal of black soldiers during the Civil War and its rousing battle scenes, Rushing readily admits “Glory” is not without its flaws.

“The biggest mistake in the film is a dramatic scene during basic training when a soldier leaves because none of them have been given boots,” Rushing said. “He goes out and steal some boots, and is chastised for going AWOL upon his return. This was just completely made up…or a misunderstanding by the writer because the soldiers were fully equipped.”

In protest against the U.S. Army’s policy of paying black soldiers $10 a week – $3 less than white soldiers earned – the entire infantry refused to collect their salaries from the paymaster until equal wages were instated – a historical detail that Rushing said “Glory” accurately captures. But in the film, Shaw forgoes his salary as well to show solidarity with the 54th, although Rushing said there is no evidence to support this anecdote.

“Another inexplicable piece is that thousands of escaped slaves were going to Union lines [to join in battle], but no black civilians are represented in the film,” Rushing said, adding that between 80,00 and 100,00 black men fought on the Union side by the time the Civil War ended in 1865.

And despite the 54th’s noteworthy brush with Tubman in Hilton Head, no black women have speaking parts in the film while Rushing said, “Robert Shaw gets too much play.”

Still, as Rushing points out, though, the film wasn’t a documentary but rather a historic drama, which was written by Kevin Jarre, a white Hollywood screenwriter, and based solely on two texts: “One Gallant Rush,” Peter Burchard’s 1965 account of 54th, and “Lay this Laurel,” Lincoln Kirstein’s 1973 book dedicated to the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial itself.

Martin Blatt, professor of the practice and director of the public history program at Northeastern University who will participate in the discussion with Rushing after the screening of “Glory” at Emerson College, agrees with Rushing’s assessment of it as a landmark film, albeit a flawed one.

 “It’s a powerful, dramatic film depicting blacks as fighting in Union Army and played a pivotal role in the Civil War, which was a key moment in U.S. history,” Blatt said. “There are inaccuracies and shortcomings in the film, but it remains quite relevant and important today.”

While as Rushing pointed out Shaw is featured prominently throughout “Glory,” Blatt said the black troops depicted in the film are all composite characters instead of actual historic figures from the 54th, such as Lewis Henry Douglass, the eldest son of Frederick Douglass, or William Harvey Carney, who was the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“Although Frederick Douglass is in film, it’s just barely…he’s a minor, bit player,” Blatt added. “He was a major recruiter for the 54th, a great abolitionist and a great figure, but he’s barely represented in the film.”

And while other elements aren’t necessarily inaccurate, Blatt said artistic, political and ideological biases are evident throughout the film (e.g. “The majority of the 54th consisted of free black men while the film gives a different impression,” he said.).

But in spite of the film’s imperfections, Blatt credits it for exposing the masses to the story of the 54th and boosting the sales of Burchard’s “One Gallant Rush” from between 4,000 and 5,000 copies prior to the film’s release to over 50,000 copies between 1989 and 2001.

“Glory” also laid the groundwork’ for a 1997 celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the monument, including a large public ceremony, a symposium and the largest gathering of black Civil War reenactors at that time, and helped pave the way for “Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment,” the 2001 book Blatt edited with Thomas Brown and Donald Yacovone, said Blatt, who also serves alongside Rushing as a member of the Shaw 54th Memorial Restoration Committee.

“The film starts and continues to start the curiosity of many in this chapter in history,” Blatt said. “‘Glory’ has also been widely used in schools’ curricula, but they use it as point of departure, not the gospel truth.”

Likewise, Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends group, said, “‘Glory’ is a wonderful, important film that tells the story of the 54th Regiment, but some things are probably dated.”

And while the film is now 30 years old, Vizza said the story of the 54th remains relevant today at such a racially divisive time in the nation’s history.

“Going back to original presentation of the monument in 1897, they talked about the bravery and sacrifice of the 54th and it being inspiration for us all in our quest for equal rights, social justice and true equality…which is still a work in progress,” Vizza said. Visit friendsofthepublicgarden.org for more information.

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