July 18 marks the anniversary of the 1863 assault on Battery Wagner, a Confederate fort defending Charleston Harbor, by the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, I taught courses on the Civil War, both as an elective at the Naval War College and as a graduate seminar for the Master of Arts in History and Government program at Ashland University in Ohio. In these courses, I spent time on African-American soldiers. I’m not big on using movies in class, but I always showed “Glory,” which recounts the exploits of the 54th.
Screening “Glory” during a history course raises a question asked in a 1995 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein: “Can Movies Teach History?” Bernstein noted that “more people are getting their history, or what they think is history, from the movies these days than from the standard history books.” Then he asked: Does “the filmmaker, like the novelist, have license to use the material of history selectively and partially in the goal of entertaining, creating a good dramatic product, even forging what is sometimes called the poetic truth, a truth truer than the literal truth?” In other words, “does it matter if the details are wrong if the underlying meaning of events is accurate?”
That question applies to “Glory,” which contains numerous historical inaccuracies. Some of them are minor. For instance, the regiment’s climactic assault against Battery Wagner actually took place from south to north, rather than north to south as the movie depicts.
But many of the inaccuracies are major. Robert Gould Shaw, played in the film by Matthew Broderick, was not Massachusetts Governor John Andrew’s first choice to command the regiment. When the command was eventually offered to him, he hesitated before deciding to accept. More seriously from the standpoint of historical accuracy, the 54th, portrayed in the movie as made up largely of runaway slaves like John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) or Private Trip (Denzel Washington, in a role for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor) was in fact a regiment of freedmen like Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), recruited not only from Massachusetts but New York and Pennsylvania as well. Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons were among the first to volunteer for the regiment and Douglass’s oldest son served as the regimental sergeant major. Flogging had been abolished in the Army before the war, undercutting Washington’s Oscar moment. Indeed, Trip was more likely to have been shot for desertion.
But in response to Bernstein’s question, historical inaccuracies aside, “Glory” indeed contains a deeper truth. This deeper truth is illustrated by the contrast between the movie’s view of slaves and that of a story recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus. At the beginning of book four of The History, Herodotus tells of the return of the nomadic Scythians from their long war against the Medes, during which time the Scythian women had taken up with their slaves. The Scythian warriors suddenly found a race of slaves arrayed against them.
Having been repulsed repeatedly by the slaves, one of the Scythians admonished his fellows to set aside their weapons and take up horsewhips. “As long as they are used to seeing us with arms, they think that they are our equals and that their fathers are likewise our equals. Let them see us with whips instead of arms, and they will learn that they are our slaves; and, once they have realized that, they will not stand their ground against us.”
The tactic worked. The slaves were bewildered by the whip-wielding Scythians, lost their fighting spirit, and fled in terror. The implication of Herodotus’s story is clear. There are natural masters and natural slaves. A slave has the soul of a slave and lacks the manliness to fight for his freedom, especially if a master never deigns to treat him as a man.
At the time of the Civil War, most Southerners believed that blacks were naturally servile. The Scythian view was reflected in a comment by Howell Cobb of Georgia in response to a proposal to free slaves recruited into military service by the Confederacy: “The day you make soldiers of [Negroes] is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
But there was doubt about their manly spirit in the north as well. In the movie, a reporter from Harper’s Weekly says to Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Shaw, “will they fight? A million readers want to know.” Shaw replies, “a million and one,” which is a summation of the uncertainty of many who supported the recruitment of black soldiers.
Shaw’s comment in the movie is a paraphrase of Captain William Simpkins of the 54th Massachusetts, who wrote before his death during the regiment’s assault on Battery Wagner:
[T]his is nothing but an experiment after all; but it is an experiment that I think it is high time we should try—an experiment which, the sooner we prove fortunate the sooner we can count upon an immense number of hardy troops that can stand the effect of a Southern climate without injury; an experiment the sooner we prove unsuccessful, the sooner we shall establish an important truth and rid ourselves of false hope.
The fact was that in 1863, even elite New England abolitionists had their doubts about the manliness of blacks.
But by inaccurately depicting the 54th as a regiment of recently emancipated slaves, “Glory” reveals the deeper truth that blacks in general were not the natural slaves that Southerners believed them to be and that abolitionists feared that they might be. “Who asks now in doubt and derision, ‘Will the Negro fight?’” observed one abolitionist after the 54th’s assault on Battery Wagner. “The answer is spoken from the cannon’s mouth . . . it comes to us from . . . those graves beneath Fort Wagner’s walls, which the American people will never forget.”
The deeper truth of “Glory” was articulated in a different way by Abraham Lincoln. “The expression of [the principle that all men are created equal], in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy and fortunate,” he said. “Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.”
In 1892, Norwood Penrose Hallowell, the colonel of the 55th Massachusetts, captured the meaning of what the black soldier had accomplished during the war:
We called upon them in the day of our trial, when volunteering had ceased, when the draft was a partial failure, and the bounty system a senseless extravagance. They were ineligible for promotion, they were not to be treated as prisoners of war. Nothing was definite except that they could be shot and hanged as soldiers. Fortunate indeed it is for us, as well as for them, that they were equal to the crisis; that the grand historic moment which comes to a race only once in many centuries came to them, and they recognized it.
The deeper truth of “Glory” is in its depiction of the bravery and valor of the men of the 54th. Without the participation of African Americans, the war to save the Union “as it was” could not have been transformed into a war to save the Union “as it should be”—i.e., without slavery. And without that participation it is unlikely that African Americans could ever have achieved full citizenship and equality in the United States.