“If you are for me and my problems,” Malcolm X said in 1965, “then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did.”
Robert Gould Shaw, who was only 25 when he died in 1863, was the son of wealthy abolitionists Francis George and Sarah Blake. He attended Harvard University, traveled widely in Europe, and had the benefit of a sizeable fortune that had been amassed by his grandfather and namesake, who died in 1854. He was descended from a veteran of the American Revolution, and would have been a member by primogeniture of the Society of the Cincinnati had he survived his father. In other words, Shaw was a solid member of the New England, Brahmin elite. More importantly, he was also a veteran of the Battle of Antietam, which opens Edward Zwick’s highly regarded, but still probably underrated 1989 film, Glory.
The battle of Antietam, known in the south as the Battle of Sharpsburg, is still the single bloodiest day in American history. Not the invasion of Normandy, not 9/11, not even the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg can quite compare with the carnage that took place in western Maryland on September 17th, 1862. Had Robert Gould Shaw, who sustained some minor wounds, retired that day, moved to the south of France, and spent the rest of his life sitting on the beach, he would have still died knowing he had done his duty for his country, and for humanity.
Yet history was not finished with Robert Gould Shaw, and Robert Gould Shaw was not finished with history. The Battle of Antietam was a Union victory, but only barely. Ulysses Grant was not yet the commander of the Army of the Potomac. George B. McClellan, who could have destroyed Robert E. Lee once and for all had he deployed the ample reserve from his gigantic army, repulsed the Confederates, then decided to sit tight. Lee slipped across the Potomac River back into Virginia, and would live to bedevil Abraham Lincoln for three more years, his great victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville still ahead of him. But the Battle of Antietam was enough of a Union victory to make the governments of France and Great Britain balk at the idea of recognizing the Confederate government in Richmond, and pressuring the Republicans in Washington to sue for peace. Lincoln saw his opportunity. Going forward, the war would be not only about preserving the Union, but about ending slavery. On September 22, 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the states that had seceded from the United States, winning popular opinion in Europe for good.
The Union Army was not only the first mass, industrialized state army. It was a genuinely multi-ethnic army. A huge wave of German and Irish immigration had transformed the character of the United States, and over 200,000 Irish, and 216,000 German immigrants wound up serving in its ranks. There was, in fact, an entire corps of the Army of the Potomac made up of German speaking immigrants who served largely under German speaking officers. The question of whether or not the Union Army would become a genuinely multi-racial army was still up in the air in the fall of 1862. It would. By the end of the war, 210,000 black soldiers would serve in over 160 “Colored Regiments.” And yet it wouldn’t. Black troops, unlike native born white troops, or German or Irish immigrant troops, were not allowed to serve under their own officers.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that Robert Gould Shaw would die leading in the assault on Fort Wagner in the summer of 1863 was one of the first, and best of the “Colored Regiments.” It is well known to history, having been the subject of an angry sonnet by the African American writer Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a somewhat longer poem by Robert Lowell, and the great monument at on Boston Common. Glory, perhaps the only good film about the United States Civil War ever to have come out of Hollywood, tells the story of Shaw, and a largely fictionalized group of black soldiers. Whether or not it’s a perfect film is largely beside the point. It’s been criticized, for example, by Roger Ebert for spending too much time on Shaw, and not enough time honoring men like William Carney, the man who “saved the flag” at the Battle of Fort Wagner, the first African American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the real life model for Morgan Freeman’s Sergeant John Rawlins. Zwick came under fire for choosing Matthew Broderick — Ferris Bueller after all — as Robert Gould Shaw. But none of that really matters. Glory towers above every other film ever made about the central event of American history. Most films about the United States Civil War are either racist and reactionary like Gone With The Wind or Birth Of A Nation, or dull and mediocre like Gettysburg, the Horse Soldiers, and Cold Mountain. Glory captures the idealism of 19th Century American abolitionism and radical Republicanism in all of its, well, glory.
As such, Glory, at times, almost feels like something unearthed from a culture long dead and gone. Did men like Robert Gould Shaw ever exist? Did the American ruling class ever include people who were motivated, not by greed, or a lust of power, but by patriotism and a love of freedom and democracy? That’s the thing about how we perceive the United States Civil War. Out of all the wars in our history — World War II gets an asterisk because it was a Russian, not an American victory over fascism — the Civil War was not only the bloodiest, it was the only one that really was about “freedom.” How ironic therefore that it’s also the only American war that we talk about as a catastrophe or “avoidable” or a “tragic conflict of brother against brother.” What’s more, in the 1970s and 1980s, most American liberals and progressives were solidly in the “war is meaningless hell” camp. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Apocalypse Now, the issue of the day for American filmmakers was Vietnam, a war about empire, not freedom. How odd Glory must have seemed in 1989, a film that was both solidly liberal, and yet pro-war, and a good film about the United States Civil War has to be pro-war. Gettysburg and Antietam, for all their horrifying violence, were great moments for the human race, example of where men were willing to stand in line, and hold their ground in the face of almost certain death or dismemberment for the ideas of freedom and democracy. This was real. It happened. All the bad Hollywood films in the world can’t change the fact that “we” Americans fought the most violent civil war in history to end slavery. In addition to its other virtues, Glory solidly addresses the question of who “we” are. None of those 210,000 African American Union Army soldiers, whether they were put to work doing manual labor or involved in the actual fighting, saw themselves as being in a “tragic war of brother against brother.” They saw themselves as an oppressed nation fighting against their enslavers.
“We” of course also includes white men who hated slavery. When Captain Robert Gould Shaw returns to his parents’ mansion from Antietam, he attends a party given by his abolitionist parents. There he meets Frederick Douglass, Raymond St. Jacques in the last film of his career, and the radical Republican governor of Massachusetts, John Albion Andrew. He also meets his childhood friend Thomas Searles, a college educated, free black men played by a wonderful young Andre Braugher. Shaw is offered the command of the 54th Massachusetts, and accepts, not a decision he would have taken lightly. Jefferson Davis would soon issue a proclamation stating that any captured black soldier, or white officer captured leading black soldiers would be shot on sight. The horrific Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville was a development very late in the war. Until 1864, it was very common for soldiers of both sides to surrender, and to be “paroled” shortly afterwards on their word that they would not return to the ranks. By commanding black troops Shaw would be denied that option. It would be victory or death.
The first half of Glory is staged as a conventional “basic training” narrative where “boys” are made into men, and yet it’s not. The problem of race makes Shaw’s encampment at Camp Meigs in Readville Massachusetts profoundly different, for example, from Full Metal Jacket’s Parris Island. Why do you think I put “boys” into quotes? Morgan Freeman’s John Rawlins, Braugher’s Thomas Searles, Denzel Washington’s Silas Trip, and Jihmi Kennedy’s Jupiter Sharts do, on some superficial level, resemble soldiers in a World War II film. Searles is timid, educated, a bookworm. Trip is an ex-slave, an angry young man and a vaguely anachronistic, post 1960s Black Nationalist who despises Searles over his privileged upbringing. Sharts is a good-natured country boy who’s handy with a rifle. Rawlins is an older man of great personal authority, a natural leader, and, because he worked as a gravedigger after the Battle of Antietam and knows the sacrifices white soldiers have made to end slavery, a patriot who only wants his chance to die for his country.
The basic training sequence in Glory has a political and historical complexity like few other war films. There’s no one-sided, authoritarian relationship between Shaw, his second in command Cabot Forbes, or his drill instructor Sergeant Mulcahy and his black troops. Shaw, as a privileged white man, must learn to see things from the point of view of ex-slaves, the men the war is, after all, at least in his eyes, being fought over. Denzel Washington’s Silas Trip, on the other hand, mistrusts Shaw. “He ain’t been to no West Point,” he says. What Trip doesn’t quite understand is that he’s been to Antietam, a thousand times rougher than some boys school up on the Hudson River. Camp Meigs, in effect, becomes a model republic. Trip goes AWOL. Shaw, in what might be Glory’s most famous scene, has him flogged, immediately regretting his decision when he sees the scars Trip still has from his years in bondage. Rawlins, who would later become the regiment’s top sergeant, and who plays the part of the commanding father figure to Trip’s difficult son, makes up a story about Trip only having gone AWOL to look for shoes. The corrupt, political officers who run the quartermaster corps in Massachusetts are holding out. Shaw, in turn, becomes a better commanding officer when, under Rawlins’ prodding, he goes to the supply depot and demands that the corrupt officer in charge release the uniforms (and shoes) that have been requisitioned for his men. There’s a brief scene where Shaw becomes, in effect, a labor leader, vowing not to accept pay if his black troops are paid under the prevailing scale for white troops, outflanking the more radical Trip, who’s willing to take whatever pay he can get. Thomas Searles learns that he needs to toughen himself up, that years of reading books hasn’t prepared him to go to war. Sergeant Mulcahy, who we at first think is an Irish immigrant racist, reveals himself instead to be a man who understands perfectly well where Searles is going, to a hell where he’ll need all the training he can get if he’s going to survive.
The key to understanding Glory is that none of the black soldiers under Shaw’s command wants only to survive. Rather, as John Rawlins tells Trip, they want their chance to die for their country like men. That is what makes Glory such an outlier among American war films, a pro-war, openly patriotic, and yet left-wing film made after Vietnam. Some of the scenes in the South Carolina “Sea Islands” where the Stars and Stripes is unfurled to the cheers of freed slaves are among the most patriotic images I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film. The scene where a certain Colonel Montgomery orders Shaw to participate in the abuse of white, southern civilians is a quick, and harrowing lesson in the difference between simple class revenge and fighting for a just society. Rawlins, Trip, Sharts, all of them are ex-slaves. None of them wanted this. Not even the angry Trip wants to be a war criminal.
Finally, the men of the 54th get their chance to fight, a minor skirmish, and then to die, the assault on the almost impregnable Fort Wagner. William Carney, the real John Rawlins, would survive the assault and go onto a long career working for the United States Postal Service, finally getting his Congressional Medal of Honor 37 years after the Battle of Fort Wagner. “Boys,” the ex slave remarked. “I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” Carney would plant the Stars and Stripes on the parapet at Fort Wagner, and bring it back behind Union lines, even though he was severely wounded. Shaw offers the position of standard-bearer to Silas Trip, who refuses the honor because, as he makes clear, he’s fighting for his race, not his country. Yet, in the end, after Shaw is killed, Trip picks up the colors, and dies alongside the white officer he had so mistrusted. Searles is bayoneted, dying at a young age, but clearly a “man” and not a ‘boy.” What happens to Rawlins is not so clear. Perhaps he, like William Carney, survives to go onto a long career as a postman and a motivational speaker, finally getting the recognition he so richly deserves during the (Teddy) Roosevelt administration. Glory closes with the Confederate flag flying over Fort Wagner, but it’s a victory in defeat. Abraham Lincoln, a racist until late in the Civil War, would gain new respect for black soldiers after he learned about the 54th Massachusetts. Their sacrifice would help inspire him, not only to use the manpower so desperately needed by the Union, but, also, to push for the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery.
“He is out of bounds,” the poet Robert Lowell would write in his great poem For the Union Dead about Shaw, but which could also apply to Trip or Thomas Searles. “He rejoices in man’s lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die.”