In the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, South Carolinian artillery forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. After some 35 hours of relentless bombardment, the garrison, heavily damaged and its ammunition exhausted, was forced to surrender. Many years of angry bickering and reluctant compromise between the North and the South had now turned into military hostilities. The Civil War was underway.
Although some blacks had fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, they were, according to law, barred from military service. Consequently, during the early stages of the Civil War, blacks eager to enlist were turned away. But the dire need for manpower soon convinced the federal government to change its policy. In mid-1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton approved certain local enrollments of blacks in Kansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina. A year later, the Emancipation Proclamation specifically authorized unlimited black enlistment. Wholesale recruitment ensued, and by late 1863, well over 50 black regiments had formed. In all, about 200,000 blacks would eventually join the Union Army, comprising some 166 regiments. Nearly one-fifth of them perished during the Civil War.
Black soldiers were segregated and commanded by white officers. Initially, pay was $7 per month for blacks, which was about half that of their white counterparts. In addition, the black regiments were usually outfitted with the poorest equipment and received the most meager supplies. Predictably, black prisoners were afforded especially cruel regimen by their Confederate captorssome unfortunates were even summarily shot. While the shoddy treatment and lousy conditions were somewhat expected, the worst of it, from the perspective of the blacks, was that many northerners were skeptical of their courage and fighting ability.
Racism among the Union troops was profound. Many northerners who accepted the idea of black troops did so only because the blacks were often assigned either especially heavy work or tasks considered too menial for whites (after all, the simple black man was used to strenuous routine labor) rather than actual battlefield fighting. When black companies were included in battle tactics, it was not unusual for them to be placed in the most strategically dangerous situations (no sense putting the lives of white soldiers in positions of extreme risk when there were plenty of blacks on hand). A popular song in the North celebrated "Sambo's Right to be Kilt" as the only justification for black enlistments.
The most famous of the black volunteer regiments was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. It was commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a blond Bostonian only 25 years of age. His parents were wealthy abolitionists. On July 18, 1863, the Massachusetts 54th spearheaded the land-and-sea assault on Charleston, during the Coastal Campaign of 1863, with Fort Wagner as the immediate objective.
By the war's end, one soldier in eight was black. In fact, the Union's black troops alone, more than a third of which came from the states of Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas, outnumbered the entire Confederate Army! Blacks had an even greater impact in the Navy, where they comprised a quarter of the force. Sixteen black soldiers and four black sailors received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during the Civil War.
The Massachusetts 54th is chronicled in the motion picture Glory, produced in 1989. Its cast includes Matthew Broderick, who portrays Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and Cary Elwes, playing the part of Major Cabot Forbes, Shaw's confidant and fellow officer. The movie received three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor, won by Denzel Washington ("Trip") for his role as a runaway slave, now enlisted in the 54th, who embodies the unyielding spirit of the black regiment. His misdirected energy and common insolence is tempered by an empathetic and inspirational old sergeant, played by Morgan Freeman ("Rawlins"). Also among the raw recruits of the 54th are Andre Braugher ("Searles"), a free black from an established northern family, clearly accustomed to many comforts and benefits enjoyed by privileged society, including a fine education, and Jihmi Kennedy ("Sharts"), a timid ex-slave who learned unquestioned submission to white authority on a South Carolina plantation.
Shaw wrote home to his parents regularly, telling his version of life in the Army of the Potomac. The letters (currently held by the Houghton Library at Harvard University) provide the historical basis for much of Glory; several brief excerpts are read by a voice-over throughout the movie. Other sources used by the filmmakers are Lay This Laurel, by Lincoln Kirstein, and One Gallant Rush, by Peter Burchard. While Glory has an R rating, owing to violence and language typical of historically genuine presentations about war and racism, it is not overly embellished with either.
From the outset, director Edward Zwick resolved to uphold the movie's historical integrity. Glory modifies some of the facts, but the deviations are relatively minor and do not detract from presenting the true legacy of the Massachusetts 54th and in doing so, fulfilling the film's overall purpose. For example, the Massachusetts governor did not offer Shaw command of the new 54th person-to-person at a lavish reception. Rather, the governor conveyed the offer through Shaw's father. Nor did Shaw immediately accept; he initially refused, but later changed his mind.
The membership base of the Massachusetts 54th is the subject of another minor historical flaw within Glory. Although about 80 percent of the blacks who served in the Union Army were ex-slaves, the bulk of the 54th's recruits were free blacks residing in the North. The movie, however, would have viewers believe the regiment was composed almost entirely of runaway slaves.
Understandably, the use of physical punishment was a major point of contention between ex-slave recruits and white officers during the Civil War. During an especially agonizing scene in Glory, Shaw has one of his black recruits whipped for disobeying camp orders. The real Shaw did not submit his soldiers to such treatment. Not only had Congress recently outlawed flogging in the military, but for the compassionate Shaw to have done so is inconceivable. Hence, the scene is apart from fact.
One particularly memorable episode in Glory shows the frenzied black soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th (at the urging of the fiery private portrayed by Washington) tearing up their paychecks to protest wages unequal to that of white Union soldiers. In truth, the blacks of the 54th did refuse to accept any pay at all until it was equalized, though it is doubtful their show of displeasure was as raucous as that in the movie.
Immediately after the war, efforts began to create a memorial to Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th in Boston. It wasn't until 1881 that enough funds were raised to commission the project from the distinguished American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. At the insistence of Shaw's family, Saint-Gaudens included some of the regiment's soldiers in the memorial. The finished piece, unveiled in May of 1897, shows Shaw mounted on a horse amidst 23 black troops. Booker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee Institute, was among the speakers at the dedication ceremony. Also present was Sergeant William H. Carney, a survivor of the 54th's assault on Fort Wagner and the first black to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Carney, though wounded twice and soaked with blood, retrieved the American flag from a fallen flag-bearer and managed to haul it from the battleground. Over the years, Saint-Gaudens's work has become one of the most popular of the countless monuments commemorating the Civil War. It can be seen as background while the final credits roll in Glory.
Select the best response for each item according to information learned by viewing Glory, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).