The Lowell Film Festival continues today with a walking tour of Civil War Lowell beginning at 6 pm on the steps of the Pollard Memorial Library and continues with the film “Traces of the Trade” at the National Park Visitor Center on Market Street. Another walking tour will take place tomorrow, beginning at 12:30 pm, also from the library. For the full schedule, check out the Lowell Film Festival website.
The 10th annual Lowell Film Festival kicked off last night with a showing of “Glory”, the 1989 film about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment which starred Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. I hadn’t seen “Glory” for a number of years and watching it again last evening I was reminded of what a powerful film it is.
The movie opens at the battle of Antietam in August 1862 with Robert Gould Shaw (played by Broderick) as a company commander in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment leading his men in an attack across an open field. They are devastated by Confederate fire and the movie’s special effects provide a gruesome image of what was the bloodiest day in American military history (more men were killed in a single day at Antietam than on any single day of battle before or since).
Shaw returns to his home in Boston to recuperate from the wound he received. At a reception hosted by his Abolitionist parents, Shaw meets Massachusetts Governor John Andrew who offers the young captain command of the 54th, a newly formed regiment composed entirely of African-American soldiers (with white officers). Arming men of color, many escaped slaves, was a radical notion at the time. Shaw hesitatingly accepts and becomes the regiment’s first colonel.
The middle part of the movie documents Shaws efforts to train the new unit up to the standards needed to do well in combat, and the latent racism that mightily tries to hold the men back. The unit is finally tested in battle in what in the scheme of history was a minor skirmish but for those involved was a wild and deadly melee in a Georgia forest.
The 54th next finds itself on the coast of South Carolina near Charleston. To take that birthplace of Seccessionism, the Union Army must first capture Fort Wagner, a powerful position set on a narrow sandbar near the entrance to the harbor. Shaw volunteers the 54th to lead the attack. The men bravely charge the fort and suffer many casualties. Though they breach the walls they are too weak and the defenders are too strong and the fort remains in Confederate hands. (The Union laid seige to the fort and it surrendered two months later after running out of food and water).
The movie closes with the Confederates tossing the bodies of the African-American soldiers into a mass grave on the beach. Shaw’s body is thrown in with them. The Confederates intended that – burying a white officer with black troops – to be a final insult. Shaw’s parents wrote to thank the Confederate officer in charge for fulfilling their son’s wish to be buried with his men. Although not shown in the film a severe coastal storm soon thereafter swept all the bodies out to sea and they were never recovered. Shaw’s family erected a memorial for him in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.
The bravery of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner convinced the north that black troops could make a vital and much-needed contribution to the war effort. By the end of the conflict, 200,000 African American men had served in the Union Army and Navy. When, as the war neared its end, questions arose about extending the vote to former slaves, Abraham Lincoln cited the bravery of African American soldiers in the war as the single most compelling reason in favor.