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A fitting tribute to Colonel R. G. Shaw and his brave men
on April 4, 2006
I first saw this film right after its release on video nearly 16 years ago, and I can say in all honesty that it changed my life. Having grown up with an interest in Civil War history, this film made me realise just how little I actually knew of the period beyond what most people learn in school about this era of American History. So as the credits rolled, I wrote down the names of the books quoted, sought them out at the library, and it wasn't long before I began to realise that this would beg some further research. Taking the bibliography of one of the sources for this film, "One Gallant Rush" by Peter Burchard, I did my utmost to find and read as many of his sources as I could possibly get my hands on.
The result of this research has been that now I wish that the film had been truer to the actual story of what really happened. There are some obviously glaring historical inaccuracies in the film, but if you don't know the actual story as intimately as I do, it does little to detract from the fact that this is a superb film that brought to light one of the less known and more obscure aspects of Civil War history, that blacks fought in rather large numbers for the Union Army and were instrumental in turning the tide in favour of the Union in the war. In the end, nearly 200,000 blacks would fight in blue under the auspices of the United States Bureau of Coloured Troops. The 54th would keep its state regimental designation, but all the rest of the black troops were part of the USCT, the United States Coloured Troops.
Had the filmmakers stuck more rigourously to the actual history of the 54th Massachusetts, it would have been far more dramatic than what the film suggests. The 54th did not spend Christmas 1862 in camp; in point of fact, that regiment hadn't even been raised by that point. Robert Gould Shaw was still very much with the 2nd Massachusetts at that point, the regiment that he belonged to at the time that he was offered command of the 54th, by his father, in proxy for Governor Andrew, who came to visit him in winter camp in Virginia. Shaw at first refused, because he'd fought and bled beside his brethren of the 2nd and felt a strong bond with these men after what they had been through - Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Winchester. Shaw had been twice wounded in these engagements, though not badly. He did not wish to leave this regiment and command a coloured troop. He also fought his own personal prejudices over the idea of the Union raising black troops. After some deep thought for a few days, he changed his mind, however, and decided to take this enormous risk of his military career.
The 54th was not made up of escaped slaves as was portrayed in the film. The character of Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) is closer to the kind of man who would have fought in the 54th - educated, free, literate. Men in this regiment came from as far away as Canada to enlist in the 54th. In fact, the town that sent the single largest number of men to the 54th was not one in Massachusetts, but then considered radical Oberlin, Ohio. John Mercer Langston, whose famous descendent would be the black poet Langston Hughes, recruited for the 54th Massachusetts in Ohio and was responsible for Oberlin sending so many free black men to fight in that regiment. It might have been interesting to show the variety of free black men who volunteered to fight in this regiment and the kinds of professions that they left behind, from farmer to cabinet maker to sailor to teamster and beyond. However, I suppose having characters who were escaped slaves such as Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy), Trip (Denzel Washington) and John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and contrasting them with Searles made for an interesting story.
The real Robert Gould Shaw was a far more complicated character than the one that Matthew Broderick brought to the screen. I must commend his portrayal, though. He has generally made a reputation for playing either light comic or wise-ass characters, and he showed remarkable depth and pathos in playing this vaguely tragic character. His soulful eyes regularly reflected the horrors of war and he seemed to have that same haunted, far away look that photographs of the real Robert Gould Shaw seem to have, as if all along he knew that he would not survive the war to come home to his loved ones. His uncanny resemblance to the real Shaw also helped and I have to wonder if he was drafted to play the part after the director saw the pictures of the real Shaw or whether he decided to play that part himself as a break from his usual comic work. Either way, I commend his performance and wonder why he hasn't done other dramatic work in the same vein as this film.
This film is a fitting tribute to both the reluctant hero Robert Gould Shaw and to the brave black men who fought under him, fighting prejudice and skepticism with bravery and honour. It is a good thing that this film was made and that this story was resurrected from certain obscurity. It is my hope that history classes in schools are now showing this lesser known side of Civil War history and that not all blacks were slaves awaiting liberation by the Union with 40 acres and a mule. This film, as I mentioned at the beginning of the review, changed my life, and it is my hope that it will change others as well. It is a powerful story well acted by the entire cast with a five hankie ending that will leave a real lump in your throat. If you aren't crying by the time the film closes, you are far harder hearted than I am. I highly recommend seeing this film. It is one I never tire of seeing over and over again.
And just to end this review, I will add some recommended reading if you are interested in following up on this film once you've seen it and want to know more. "Blue Eyed Child of Fortune", ed. by Russell Duncan, is a collection of Colonel Shaw's letters home to loved ones. A fascinating read, to hear Shaw speak with his own voice on his Civil War experiences with both the 2nd Massachusetts and the 54th Massachusetts regiments. Follow that up with Duncan's biography of Shaw, "Where Death and Glory Meet". You might also want to read the book that partly inspired the film, Peter Burchard's "One Gallant Rush". If you want to hear the voices of Shaw's soldiers, read Capt. Luis F. Emilio's regimental memoir of the 54th, "A Brave Black Regiment". A young seaman from New Bedford, Massachusetts, Cpl. James Henry Gooding wrote letters that became the book, "On the Altar of Freedom". He fought in Company C of the 54th, was gravely wounded at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, was captured by the Confederacy, sent to Andersonville, where he died of his wounds. Sgt. George E. Stephens of Company B wrote letters that became the book, "A Voice of Thunder". Stephens would end his war as a 1st Lieutenant, an officer in the 54th. "A Grand Army of Black Men" contains some letters from members of the 54th as well. All of these books are highly recommended reading if you want to get to know the members of this historic regiment through hearing their own voices speak of their experiences.