How the Men of 'Glory' Stood Up to the U.S. Government

The movie ended with a climactic battle scene. But the all-black regiment went on to fight unjust payment policies -- and won.

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Tristar Pictures

Since 1989 nothing has had more influence on our understanding of the men who served in the Civil War's "colored" regiments than the movie Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, who played Colonel Robert G. Shaw alongside a supporting cast including Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. The movie focused on the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which constituted the first all-black regiment raised in early 1863. 

Glory's popularity emerged from its willingness to tackle unsettling issues such as the discrimination and racism that black soldiers faced from within the military and from their own government. The movie's climax, involving the unit's failed attack at Battery Wagner in July 1863, depicted their final victory over adversity and their collective sacrifice around the flag.  The final scene of Shaw being buried with his shoeless men juxtaposed against Augustus Saint-Gaudens' beautiful monument to the regiment, located on Beacon Street across from the Massachusetts State House, left the audience with feelings of national pride and a sense that the men did indeed triumph over racism within the ranks in a war that brought about Confederate defeat, the preservation of the Union and a "new birth of freedom."

While Glory introduced the general public to a crucial aspect of the Civil War that had long been ignored, it did so selectively by ending the story of the 54th midway through the war. In doing this, the movie steered clear of the challenges the regiment continued to face, not just on the battlefield at the hands of angry Confederates, who refused to treat them as soldiers, but from their own government as well. 

The soldiers of the 54th spent much of the remainder of the war protesting the United States government and a policy that paid black men $10 per month (as compared to white soldiers' $13). This discriminatory practice was briefly acknowledged in a scene in Glory that depicted Colonel Shaw joining his men in protest by tearing up their pay vouchers. The issue was then dropped, and in light of their bravery displayed at Battery Wagner, most viewers probably assumed the policy was discontinued.

It was not. Over the course of the next year, the soldiers of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, along with many of their white officers, refused to accept the Lincoln administration's unequal pay. In a letter to the president, Corporal James Henry Gooding asked, "Are we Soldiers, or are we Labourers?" He went on to remind Lincoln that his comrades "have conducted ourselves to the complete satisfaction of General Officers" and played a role in "reducing the first stronghold that flaunted a Traitor Flag" and "have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy." The hardships associated with low pay were felt not only in camp but across the North, as the families of these men worked desperately to make ends meet. Even Massachusetts Governor John Andrew's offer in December 1863 to pay the $3 difference out of state funds was met with a stern refusal.

Presented by

Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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