Thursday, January 5, 2012

The story behind Glory

One Gallant Rush, Peter Burchard

The subtitle of this book is "Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment."  The regiment was the 54th Massachusetts, which was raised in January of 1863, shortly after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  It was the first regiment of African American soldiers raised in the North to fight in the Civil War, which had become a fight to end slavery as well as to restore the Union.  This is the story told in the 1989 film Glory, with Matthew Broderick playing Robert Shaw, and in fact my copy is a movie tie-in, reprinted from its original publication in 1965.

The film opens with the battle of Antietam in September of 1862.  The book opens with Shaw leading his new regiment on parade through the streets of Boston in May of 1863, as they prepare to go to the front.  Then Burchard jumps back to Shaw's birth and early years, to explain how he came to accept this historic command.  The film of course could only hint at his background, which is a shame, because it turns out to be a pretty interesting one.  His parents, wealthy and socially prominent, were early converts to the anti-slavery movement, despite its unpopularity even in the North, working with leading figures like William Lloyd Garrison, Fanny Kemble, and John Andrew (the future governor of Massachusetts).  When Robert was a child, his father bought an estate next to the famous Brook Farm utopian community, where they came to know a whole world of New England intellectuals and philosophers.

After attending schools abroad, in Switzerland and Hanover, Robert returned to enter Harvard University in the fall of 1856.  He dropped out after his junior year to go into business in the New York offices of an uncle, but he found himself bored with the work.  He was caught up in the intensity and excitement of the presidential election of 1860, voting for Abraham Lincoln.  In the crisis that followed, as Southern states seceded, he joined the 7th New York State Militia (as did George Templeton Strong's brother-in-law, Jem Ruggles), later transferring to the 2nd Massachusetts.  His units served in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, but they missed most of the major battles in the first years of the war.  In Virginia, Shaw came in contact for the first time with Southern slavery, which deepened his commitment to abolition.  He also advocated the enlistment of black soldiers, who he believed would fight well and whose familiarity with the South could be a major asset for Northern forces.

Within three weeks of the Emancipation Proclamation, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts had pushed the Lincoln administration to allow him to raise a regiment of "persons of African descent, organized into special corps."  Four days later, he wrote to Robert Shaw in Virginia, offering him a commission as colonel of the new regiment.  Shaw initially declined, thinking himself too young at age 25 and lacking experience of command, but he changed his mind and accepted.  He wrote to his fiancée Annie Haggerty in a very practical spirit:
"Then, after I have undertaken this work, I shall feel that what I have to do is to prove that a negro can be made a good soldier, and that being established, it will not be a point of honour with me to see the war through . . . At any rate I shall not be frightened out of it by its unpopularity . . . I feel convinced I shall never regret having taken this step . . ."
Through the spring of 1863, recruiting agents traveled the northern states and even into Canada to find men for the new regiment.  Unlike the regiments of escaped slaves already serving in the South, the 54th was made up primarily of free men of color, including two sons of Frederick Douglass. (Among the white officers was Wilkie James, the brother of Henry and William James.)  Many people came to inspect the troops in camp, and even those who opposed black enlistment were impressed with their training and military appearance.

On May 28, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts sailed under orders for South Carolina.  They spent the next six weeks skirmishing with Confederate forces on the islands surrounding the entrance to Charleston's harbor.  Exposed to fire for the first time, the men fought well, increasing Shaw's confidence in them.  On July 16th, Shaw led the 54th on a direct frontal attack, uphill across open ground, on the massive Fort Wagner.  It was one of those hopeless suicidal charges that make up the saddest and most frustrating stories of the Civil War.  Shaw fell before the walls, one of the regiment's 281 casualties.  The Confederates, who despised black troops and even more the white officers who led them, refused to return his body for burial, tossing it in a common grave.  His family later asked that he remain there, among his men.

From the film, I knew the general outline of Shaw's story and the fate of the 54th Massachusetts.  For many people seeing the film, it was the first time they learned about the issues facing black troops in the Civil War, including the opposition to their enlistment in the first place, and the fact that they were paid less than white soldiers until 1864.  As usual with film adaptations, I found that elements of the story had been changed for dramatic purposes.  There is no mention, for example, of Shaw's marriage to Annie Haggerty early in May 1863, a marriage both sets of parents opposed, which left her a widow after only three months of marriage.  The book gives additional context, and to me a deeper meaning, to the story of Shaw and his men.  At the same time, it focuses primarily on Shaw, and I would be interested to read more about the soldiers themselves and their experiences.  I did learn that the 54th was among the Union troops that marched in to occupy Charleston in the last days of the war, returning in victory to the place where so many of their comrades had fallen.


  1. This sounds like an awesome book. I've watched Glory I don't know how many times.

  2. Me too, Jillian! It's an awesome movie. I think it will be on Turner Classics, during their "31 Days of Oscar," and I'll need to watch it again.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!