Please let me know in the comments below, or on social media, if I have mentioned before the fact that I used to be a Civil War reenactor. Given the stigma attached to this small subset of Americans in recent years with the rush to tear down all monuments to the Confederacy, let me make it clear that I portrayed a Union soldier. If you do not know your history, that was the side opposing slavery, the side that ultimately won. When you are young and you love learning about the past as I did (and still do), such an immersive experience as reenacting is alluring. I remember the first reenactment I saw, which was actually an American Revolution demonstration at Cantigny Park, a place I mentioned while reviewing the eminently forgettable Ghosts of War (2020). It is one thing to thumb through artists’ renderings of what Continental Army soldiers looked like, quite another thrill to see them come to life before your eyes. Not long after I moved to the Tampa Bay area, my dad took me to the Brooksville Raid, the now defunct but once second largest Civil War reenactment in the state. Then, going into my freshman year of high school, one of my classmates turned out to be a reenactor, too, and I was soon participating in the rather expensive hobby. While other kids saved to buy cars, most of my spare change went to supporting a new habit, essentially. After doing it for a while, you come to know which films about the War Between the States are good, and which are crap. Glory (1989) is one of the good ones.
One of the reasons Glory is good is because it draws from actual historical documents, such as the narration you hear at the outset from Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s (Matthew Broderick) journal as his Massachusetts regiment is about to fight at the battle of Antietam in 1862. It is his first taste of combat, and it is a bloody one. He is slightly wounded in the engagement, but it lands him in a field hospital where more critically injured soldiers are being “treated.” I put that last word in parentheses because what goes on there in the name of medicine is too gruesome to enumerate, thus I leave it to your imagination. Shaw is then granted a leave and returns home. At a party there, his father Francis George Shaw (Peter Michael Goetz), along with state governor John Albion Andrew (Alan North) and noted abolitionist Frederick Douglas (Raymond St. Jacques), propose forming the first ever regiment of African American soldiers. It is to be dubbed the 54th Massachusetts and they ask Robert Gould Shaw to lead it. In turn, Shaw taps his friend and comrade Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) to be his second in command. Together, they are tasked with assembling a group of men, many of which were former slaves, in order to fight in the bloodiest conflict in American History. At first, Shaw seems to be the only taking his regiment seriously. The army decides initially to undersupply the 54th, a situation only remedied by his insistence that they be treated like any other unit. His attitude is also received with mixed sentiments from the rank and file. A close childhood friend of Shaw’s, Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), joins as a private. He expects a certain amount of deference because of his relationship with Shaw, but soon learns that he is seen as a private like the others. One who expects poor treatment from any white person is Trip (Denzel Washington), and when he is flogged for attempting to desert, you can see why from the lines of whip scars on his back. The voice of the troops, one that keeps everyone in line and becomes a sounding board for Shaw, is Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman). Working together, they manage to turn the 54th into a formidable force, and they are proudly shipped south to South Carolina to begin their duties. Not long after they get to their station, they soon find out the army’s real opinion of African American soldiers. Once there, they discover a ragtag group of escaped slaves being led by Colonel John M. Montgomery (Cliff De Young), whose sole purpose is to loot and pillage the surrounding area and enrich him and the area’s commander, General Charles Garrison Harker (Bob Gunton). The business is shady enough that Shaw and Forbes go to Harker and demand to have the 54th put into combat lest they reveal the true nature of Harker and Montgomery’s activities. It does not take long after the orders are written that they are involved in a small skirmish in which the unit performs admirably. Days later, Shaw volunteers them to lead the assault on a key fortification guarding Charleston harbor called Battery Wagner. In the attack, Shaw is killed, Trip dying next to him attempting to retrieve the unit’s flag, and though a stirring scene, their efforts prove unsuccessful. The movie concludes with Shaw being buried in a common grave with those of his men who also fell.
Time to put on my history cap in talking further about Glory. The first thing that should be pointed out is that the story of the 54th Massachusetts does not end with the assault on Battery Wagner. It goes on to serve throughout the rest of the war, though I guess showing that would have made the movie too long. Still, what is left is a rousing story of courage that gets most of the history right. I will not bore you with too many details here, but what makes the film fun to watch as a former reenactor is the attention to detail the filmmakers seemed to make in regards to the way the men marched and held their weapons. Reenacting is not just about showing up on a random weekend, dressing in itchy wool uniforms that are oppressive to wear in the hotter months, and generally making a lot of noise. At least it was not that way for me. The unit that I joined met up on other random weekends to practice the drills with which Civil War soldiers in the 1860s would have been familiar and used in combat. It is thus gratifying to see the same maneuvers utilized in the film. If nothing else, it gives me further insight while I watch it, and in so doing lets me know that my youth was not entirely misspent.
Clearly, the main character of Glory is Shaw, though Denzel Washington did win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Trip. Still, it is worth talking about Shaw a little further, and again I am going to use what is perhaps, by now on this blog, a tired Christian theme: sacrifice. When you are laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, whether it is Christ in His Passion, or Shaw to help end slavery, there is no higher purpose to which we are called. Jesus said so in no uncertain terms, and Shaw emphasizes this to Forbes when the latter calls out the former for his harsh treatment of the men during training. Either way, let me give you some context. When the Confederacy learned that the Union was raising regiments of all African American troops, it issued a stern ultimatum that is read aloud to the unit. You see, in war soldiers typically treat the enemy with a certain amount of civility . . . when they are not trying to murder each other, of course. With the 54th, and other African American units, the Confederacy said in no uncertain terms that it would execute any white officer they captured leading black troops for inciting insurrection, and the rank and file would be immediately made slaves. As capture is certainly a possibility for any soldier, you can see why it would give anyone pause in joining this endeavor. When this proclamation is read to the unit by Shaw, it comes with the understanding that anyone wishing to leave would be granted permission to do so, including the officers. The next day, everyone is present. It is an incredible display of dedication that I wish I saw more of, including in my fellow Catholics.
If you have not seen Glory before and are a lover of history, then you should watch it. It is not simply in the military maneuvers, the right costuming, or what I like to refer to as the “dirt and grit” of history. It is a great story that will leave you with goosebumps, particularly during the climactic assault on Battery Wager. As it is a war movie, you might not want to show it to younger audiences. Otherwise, watch freely.