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.

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.

The situation continued to deteriorate in early 1864, especially within companies whose officers joined the regiment following the assault at Wagner and did not share the antislavery zeal of their predecessors. Prior to the failed battle at Olustee, Florida, in February, Colonel Edward N. Hallowell of the 54th received an anonymous letter threatening that his men would refuse to fight if not immediately awarded equal pay. Rumblings from others could be heard throughout the camp at this time. During the regiment's evacuation of Florida on April 17, a group plotted to seize the troop transport Cosmpolitan and steam to New York. A firm hand on the part of Hallowell averted a mutiny, but discontent persisted.

A similar chain of events transpired in the 55th Massachusetts, in the form of anonymous letters to its commander, Colonel Alfred S. Hartwell, and a steady stream of letters sent to black newspapers back home that detailed their hardships. In response to a refusal on the part of 120 men to take up positions on a picket line, Hartwell threatened that anyone who disobeyed would be court-martialed and shot. One soldier was ultimately bucked and gagged. In April, 75 men from the 55th flirted with open mutiny by appealing to the president for immediate action.

The first soldier executed in the 55th Massachusetts over the pay crisis was Private Wallace Baker, who on May 1 fell in for inspection without his weapon and equipment. Baker's insubordination continued as he refused an order to return to his tent and then struck his commander twice in the face. Baker's trial commenced on June 16 and two days later was executed in front of the entire regiment. A similar situation occurred during an inspection of Co. B of the 54th. After six men refused to fall in, the company's lieutenant shot one man in the chest. One week later, an officer in Co. H shot another man for disobeying orders, while a detachment from another company refused guard duty. Colonel Hallowell threatened these men with a bullet to the head if they refused to stand down.

A few days following the execution of Private Baker, and with the help of supporters in Massachusetts and the nation's capital, Congress finally adopted legislation authorizing equal pay retroactive to January 1, 1864. The timing of this was almost one year after the 54th's famous assault outside Charleston, South Carolina, which Glory so powerfully extols as its greatest achievement.

The popular images of the men of the 54th Massachusetts bravely assaulting Battery Wagner are an important part of our understanding of the outcome of the Civil War. Their legacy in helping to defeat a government that would have left millions of black Americans in bondage is secured. But when we consider the larger picture, a very different and unsettling legacy emerges in contrast to Glory's self-congratulatory narrative. The war against the Confederacy lasted four years. But their battle against the discriminatory policies of the United States occupies a place in a much larger narrative that stretches through the Civil Rights movement to each of us as we continue to work toward a more perfect Union.