Friday, December 22, 2017

Glory, Hallelujah – Saluting the Men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry

In 1989, the movie Glory brought to the nation’s attention a young actor named Denzel Washington. For playing the role of an African-American soldier fighting for the Union cause during the Civil War, he was awarded an Oscar as best supporting actor. The highly regarded film introduced to many the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a regiment composed of free black men determined to help win the fight against slavery in the American South. Those men, and their white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, are memorialized in a plaque erected in Boston Commons in 1897. Featuring a dramatic bas relief by noted sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the plaque faces the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, a prominent and permanent reminder of men who courageously put their lives on the line to end a social evil.

Many of those men didn’t live to see the Union win the war. Glory focuses on young Colonel Shaw (a rare dramatic role for the baby-faced Matthew Broderick) molding inexperienced volunteers into a fighting unit. Washington’s character is used to show the anger of black men who are denied respect and proper uniforms because of the color of their skin. But he and the others rise to the occasion during a bold (though ultimately futile) assault on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner that leaves many dead, their bodies tosses into a ditch, black and white together, in the ultimate expression of Southern scorn.

It’s a stirring movie, one that deserves its Oscars. But it hardly covers the entire history of the 54th, nor does it go into full detail about the indignities suffered by these black men who were risking their own freedom by marching into a place where--if  captured—they could legally be treated as chattel. It falls to my colleague Ray Anthony Shepard, a writer and educator whose grandfather was born a slave, to give us the whole chronicle of this courageous group of soldiers. His new book is called Now or Never!: 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s War to  End Slavery. It’s intended for classroom use, but all of us can learn a great deal in its pages. 

Shepard’s extensively researched account makes particular use of the writings of two volunteers, George E. Stephens and James Henry Gooding. Through their letters and their newspaper accounts from the front lines, both give the perspective of free black men gambling everything to free their enslaved brethren. One didn’t survive the war; the other grew increasingly bitter as he was repeatedly denied a promotion to officer’s ranks because of his “African ancestry.” It was not until 1891, well after his death, that he was granted the lieutenant’s stripes he had long ago earned.
The Union side, it seems, was by no means color-blind. Colonel Shaw himself started as no fan of the idea of emancipation, though he was soon pleasantly surprised by the intelligence of the black soldiers under his command. Higher-ups in the Union army played cruel tricks on men who’d been told their pay would be equal to that of white soldiers. When their expected $13 pay packets were reduced to $10, with an additional $3 charged toward their uniforms, there was a near-mutiny. So concerned were some in the War Office that black men were being trained to use rifles that there was talk of allowing them to face the enemy with only long pikes in their hands. But their courage in battle quickly put an end to that idea.

Shepard’s account is disturbing but fascinating. It shows us how much more there is to learn—and maybe there’s a movie in that?

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