"It is time for stronger remedies to be applied," said abolitionist Wendell Phillips of the Union's effort during the Civil War, "in the form of hot lead and cold steel duly administered by 100,000 black doctors." His vision became a reality as over 180,000 African-Americans (free men and escaped slaves) joined the Union Army to fight against the slave-holding Confederacy.
The story of the first such "colored" regiment to be formed, the 54th Massachusetts, is beautifully retold in director Edward Zwick's 1989 film Glory. That this film didn't even garner an Oscar nomination for best picture - in a year where Driving Miss Daisy took the prize - is puzzling to me. Glory features a first-rate script, wonderful imagery, and a stellar cast led by Matthew Broderick who plays Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the real-life idealistic white officer chosen to lead the regiment. The film is also a feast for the ears as the majestic chorus of the Harlem Boys' Choir permeates the score.
Glory tells a piece of American history that had been mostly neglected up to then by presenting the tale of the unit's formation through bringing together various characters as part of the 1860s landscape. The dilemma faced by the white officers - who learn that they will be executed for inciting slave revolt if captured on the battlefield - is personified in Shaw's best friend, the emotionally torn Maj. Cabot Forbes (Cary Ewles). In contrast are the tales of the rank and file black soldiers themselves. There is Slias Trip, the rebellious and angry runaway (played by Denzel Washington who won the Oscar for best supporting actor); Sgt.-Maj. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), the former grave-digger who becomes the modicum of soldierly poise; Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), the erudite free black man who is a bit of a dandy, having never felt the lash himself; and Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy), the stuttering, loveable, everyman ex-slave whose smile is as infectious as his dedication to the cause.
Glory's appeal to me is that it is told through the perspective of Col. Shaw himself. We are given snippets of the actual letters he wrote home about his experiences as a decidedly insulated white boy of privilege suddenly putting his own idealism to the test by taking on what was hardly a popular endeavor in the North at the time: arming and training blacks to fight in the US Army.
The film treats us to the usual battery of discrimination they faced, from being paid less than comparable white soldiers to having much-needed shoes deliberately withheld from them by racist elements within the supply department. Through it all, young Shaw transforms from first feeling alienated from the men whose life experiences he cannot even remotely fathom, to bonding with them and eventually leading them as their trusted and beloved commander on the firing line.
But what is most moving about this film is the tragic ending, which portrays (albeit with some historical license) the 54th leading the ill-fated charge against the impregnable ramparts of the rebel's Fort Wagner in which over half of the regiment (and succeeding all-white commands) were casualties. As the magnificent troops march over the dunes to the point of the assault in between two files of white units who just a few scenes before were mocking them, the cheers of "Give ‘em hell 54th!" and"Huzzah!" with hats raised are the only comments they hear now. No whites. No blacks. Just fellow soldiers in a common cause. After a heart-shredding image of Shaw staring out to the sea, taking it all in for the last time before sending his horse galloping to the safety of the rear (darn it! I'm cryingagain!), his men start their grim advance with shellfire and bullets ripping into their ranks. And the rest is sad history. Fort Wagner was never taken.
Col. Shaw was killed in this battle and was buried in a common grave along with the black troops he had the honor of commanding. The Southerners thought they were treating him to the worst of ignominy. Shaw's father, however, was proud to have his son laid to rest so. What Glorydemonstrates is an honest liberalism that has been lost by today's vindictive far left. It shows a young man (he was twenty-six) of means who literally gave his life to advance a narrative he believed in: that a black person was the equal of his own race.
As the movie Shaw says to a Harper's Weekly reporter before the attack he knows is suicidal but will pave the way for black soldiers getting the respect they deserve from a skeptical white populace, "If I should fall, remember what you see here." We remember. And one wonders how many of those who are so quick to point the finger of "racism" at anyone who doesn't agree with their politics today would charge into the teeth of Fort Wagner's guns to prove just how "post-racial" they really are.
[Post note: The mass burial is no longer there due to erosion which washed the bodies of Col. Shaw and his men out into the Atlantic. I don't know why but there is something hauntingly sublime in that.]