Hollywood has long had a legacy of revising history, most often to the detriment of truthfulness and accuracy. However, Edward Zwick’s film Glory seeks to reverse this trend with an accurate depiction of the Civil War and the men that fought it. To accomplish this, the movie follows Colonel Robert Gould Shaw from his days on the front lines leading troops into battle to his appointment as commander of the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, an all-black regiment.
While the characters may have been exaggerated and the events embellished, the film manages to portray realistically the struggle of Gould and his soldiers unlike any before it, and helps turn the meaning of the Civil War from a struggle by whites to free the slaves to a struggle shared equally by both races. According to historian James McPherson (1990), Glory throws a “cold dash of realism over the moonlight-and-magnolias portrayal of the Confederacy,” as seen in movies of the past (p. 22).
With its graphic battle scenes, realistic portrayal of soldiers’ training, and the persevering spirit of the soldiers of the 54th, the plight of the soldiers make the struggle to defeat the Confederacy a burden shared by blacks and whites alike. However, the fight the soldiers were forced to take up was not only against the Confederacy, as they had to also battle prejudice and discrimination of the federal government that cut their pay, withheld proper uniforms, and had no designs on letting them into actual combat.
This makes the meaning of the 54th something far more significant than just a fighting unit, but an example of the contributions that blacks could make to the United States, with their equal love and commitment to the Union. Only through the perseverance of Shaw and the discipline of his men did they finally receive their chance to fight.
While McPherson points out that the actual impact of the 54th and its heroic assault on Fort Wagner did not contribute to the addition of black soldiers to the Union Army, as the movement was well on its way, it did do a significant amount to influence North and South alike on the courage of the black soldiers. Unlike the disorganized units put together of “contraband,” the soldiers of the 54th showed that they can fight and die just like the white soldiers, with equal courage and intelligence.
While the movie merely hints at the affect the 54th would have on the rest of the war, what the movie does show is that the soldiers of the 54th were pioneers in helping create equality between the races. More than anything else, the soldiers of the 54th as shown in Glory give the Civil War a meaning greater than the mere preservation of the Union or the defeat of the Confederacy; they make the war about the liberation of all men and women, and echo the sentiments of the founding fathers that all men are truly created equal, regardless of race, religion, or creed.