U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008


The first time I ever saw Glory was in middle school, and like every other kid in class I was awfully impressed. I was then unaware that the Union employed blacks in their ranks and found the story very compelling. Fast forward to today and ultimately I still feel that this is a compelling and mostly accurate depiction of history.

I found the depiction of the battles to be fairly accurate, as it seemed almost silly at times that the units would literally walk right into canon fire as they were shown to do at Antietam and at Ft. Wagner. As silly as it may look to the contemporary viewer, that was the reality of the Civil War. Also, little things like the “three aimed shots in 60 seconds” were on point- there wasn’t the issue of loaded guns materializing like in Last of the Mohicans. Also the hospital scene was grisly, essentially the Gone with the Wind scene on steroids (though lacking GWTW’s epic crane shot).

There were some issues though. There were no mention of the New York City draft riots. (Gangs of New York, a movie likely rife with historical liberties, does give a depiction of these riots. I am curious as to its veracity, though it at least conveyed the sense of unrest I imagine.) We are expected to believe that the only issues concerning race with the Union army is that a) some people think they can’t fight and b) that they are only good for digging ditches, whereas there were serious concerns among people in the Union of arming former slaves at all. Also, though Frederick Douglass is a character in the movie, where are his sons and brother? How was that not deemed compelling enough for the narrative? Then there is the distortion over the contraband issue. Whereas Gen. Butler is the one who pioneers its use to free slaves, the movie has Col. Montgomery as the creator. He then uses the concept simply to exploit the slaves to add to his collection of plunder, which seems only to serve as a counterpoint to Shaw’s higher moral intentions. This struck me as an unnecessary distortion, as they could have just played up the resistance of the white soldiers more. Lastly, I wonder why there were no depictions of the slave revenge as mentioned in the Hatton letter. A scene of slave redemption, whipping an old slave master, would have been powerful.

Yet, I believe that the movie did well to not over-hype the importance of the 54th beyond their symbolic importance. It would have been easy for filmmakers to not print the final text of the movie which gave the reality of the situation, that the regiment was decimated and that the assault on Ft. Wagner, and leave the viewer to think that maybe the remnants of the regiment stormed through the fort to achieve victory. But instead the movie portrays the 54th as certainly not the first regiment of black soldiers, or the last, or even the most effective. Glory simply portrayed the 54th as an extremely influential regiment. This is where the reporter from Harper’s plays into the story. Shaw instructs him to tell the country of what they did at Wagner. The 54th became a rallying point for support of black soldiers. They were, as mentioned in lecture, a “glorious failure.” The final shot of the statue of the 54th hammered home the point to me that these men were essentially martyrs to the abolitionist cause.

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