Why ‘Glory’ Still Resonates More Than Three Decades LaterRoundup
tags: Civil War, African American history, movies, 54th Massachusetts, History in film
Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of numerous articles and books about the Civil War, including Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.
Thirty-one years ago, the Hollywood movie Glory debuted in theaters, garnering positive reviews from critics and historians as it told the Civil War story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-Black regiment raised in the North. Although it had middling success at the box office, the film became a stalwart of high school history classes and its popularity will only expand with its recent addition to the Netflix library.
The historical epic’s appearance on the streaming giant comes at the end of a summer that witnessed the sometimes-violent removal of roughly 75 Confederate monuments amidst nationwide protests under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. But even as the story of the black Americans who served in the United States army during the Civil War becomes more widely known, new viewers of the movie may wonder where fact and faction intersect in Glory.
The movie, directed by Ed Zwick, stars Matthew Broderick as the real-life figure Colonel Robert G. Shaw. The supporting cast includes Morgan Freeman as Sergeant John Rawlins, Andre Braugher as the well-educated Thomas Searles, and Denzel Washington as the escaped slave Trip. (All the black characters are fictional, though some have suggested that Searles is based on one of Frederick Douglass’ sons, who served in the regiment.)
The overall trajectory of Glory hews closely to the historical record; the script relies heavily on Shaw’s letters home during his time in the army (a title card opening the movie refers to the correspondence.) Over the course of just over two hours, viewers move from Battle of Antietam to the regiment’s military training to the deep South of Georgia and South Carolina. The movie's climax, involving the 54th’s failed attack at Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863, depicts a final victory over adversity and a collective sacrifice around the flag. Shaw is killed attempting to lead his men in a final assault as is Trip, who falls having finally embraced the regimental colors.
When Glory was first released in 1989, it challenged a deeply entrenched popular memory of the war that centered the conflict around brave white soldiers and left little room to grapple with the tough questions of slavery and emancipation. The film’s most important contribution is its success in challenging this narrow interpretation by reminding white Americans of the service of roughly 200,000 Black Americans in Union ranks and their role in helping to win the war and end slavery.