21. Oct, 2017


What the Film Glory Got Right About the American Civil War and What It Did Not



Edward Zwick’s film Glory is one of the best-known screen depictions of the American Civil War. It is the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first African-American units, from its creation to its first major action. The film won three Oscars, including Denzel Washington for best-supporting actor.

How accurately does the film depict the war and the story of the 54th Massachusetts?

Responses to the Regiment

The 54th Massachusetts was not the first African-American unit to serve the Union. Nevertheless, it was a bold experiment, as the film depicts.

The other units had been raised quietly and used in obscurity, to test how they performed and how people reacted. However, although some of them were praised for their battlefield performance in May and June 1863, they remained in the background. The film overlooks their existence.

The emphasis on the 54th Massachusetts Regiment’s importance is accurate. Raised by Governor Andrew of that state, they were the first widely publicized African-American unit.

Responses to the unit’s existence were as mixed as the film shows. Abolitionists were pleased. Others were appalled. Specific incidents of racism by officers were invented for the movie, but the overall tone is correct. There was no question of making African-Americans into officers, and their white officers faced stigma for serving in the unit.

If anything, racial prejudice in the Union is understated. Democrat politicians had stirred up racism for their own ends. In July 1863, African-Americans were beaten and killed during four days of draft riots in New York.


Robert Gould Shaw

The film’s leading character, Robert Gould Shaw, was the unit’s first commander in real life. As Glory shows, he was a privileged son of New England gentry and an ardent abolitionist. When he was given his command, he was already a veteran of the war.

However, the film misses an opportunity in Shaw’s recruitment. He is shown receiving his invitation to command at a fancy dinner party and instantly accepting the offer. In reality, Shaw was with his regiment when his father brought the letter from Governor Andrew. He struggled to decide whether to accept the offer, initially rejecting it. It was a crucial few days for the young man.

For the most part, Shaw has been portrayed accurately. His commitment to the unit and abolition were real, as was his hard work in shaping the regiment and his death alongside them.


Other Soldiers

In dramatizing the issues of the American Civil War, Glory implies that the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was made up mostly of former slaves. In reality, most of the men in the unit had been free their entire lives. They were northerners fighting for the north as well as African-Americans fighting for African-Americans. Some of them came from prominent families.

Specific characters in Glory’s 54th are mostly fictional. Shaw’s childhood friend reduced to serving under him and his second in command are both dramatically useful figures, but neither man was real. The brash rebel played by Denzel Washington and the wise older man played by Morgan Freeman are both made up.