Scholar Says ‘Glory’ Only Part of Story
A Texas scholar who recently published a book about black soldiers in the Civil War says the popular movie “Glory” almost got it right.
Almost. But he liked the movie anyway.
Joseph Glatthaar, an associate professor at the University of Houston, spent four years researching his newly released book, “Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers.”
Glatthaar said it was exciting to see the lives of soldiers he has studied come to life on the screen, but he noted some inaccuracies in the film, which coincidentally came out about the same time as his book.
“The movie’s very good--I strongly recommend it,” Glatthaar said. “What the movie is good at is conveying a sense to the observer of what it was like to be in these black units and what were some of the obstacles that they faced.”
But from a strictly historical standpoint, there are some problems, he said.
One example is the scene in which Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, orders a soldier flogged.
“Flogging was illegal in the United States Army,” Glatthaar said. “Shaw would have been discharged from the service if he did that.”
Glatthaar said the Hollywood version also included a fictitious sergeant major as Shaw’s right-hand man.
“In reality, the sergeant major of the 54th Massachusetts was the son of the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, which in itself is very interesting,” he said.
Glatthaar has read hundreds of letters exchanged between the soldiers and their families, as well as thousands of military documents from library archives.
“There was no censorship of mails, and people were very prolific with their own family or their own spouse, and that’s very revealing as far as racial attitudes go,” he said.
It was a letter from a white officer in charge of black soldiers that initially caught Glatthaar’s attention.
“I do not think that I would exchange my position in this regiment for one of equal rank in any white regiment,” the officer wrote his brother.
Glatthaar said he was intrigued by the strange alliance between the white officers and black soldiers, many of them former slaves who were apprehended as “contraband” from the South.
“Of course, you have the old situation with whites in power,” he said. “Most of the blacks are from slavery, so it’s a position to which they’re accustomed, but not happy with. And, of course, these blacks are experiencing freedom for the first time in the military, and that’s a strange situation too.”
Some 178,000 blacks served under 7,000 white officers in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Only 110 blacks were able to become officers in their own regiments.
Even before President Abraham Lincoln officially freed slaves in January, 1863, black soldiers were recruited to fill the gaps left by casualties in the Union Army.
Glatthaar noted that black soldiers suffered the indignities of lower wages, undesirable assignments and dwindling supplies. But for many it was a unique opportunity to serve as “an equal” to whites and to establish their rights for themselves by fighting their former owners.
But the white officers directing black troops were not popular back home.
“They were heroes in the black community, but they were despised by whites,” Glatthaar said. “A lot of them were attacked and brutalized and their families abused.”
But Glatthaar said the most shocking indignities were those inflicted on black troops after the war.
“What really surprised me most was the way the white population took away the accomplishments of the United States Colored Troops after the war,” Glatthaar said. “They denied their achievements.”
Black soldiers who remained as peacekeeping forces in the South during Reconstruction often suffered reprisals from former Confederate soldiers.
In the North, their fellow Union Army soldiers and officers began discounting their abilities.
“Blacks, I think, wisely felt that their white officers should have fought to help them gain full, equal rights,” he said. “The white officers never overcame their prejudice.”
Glatthaar said the battle for equality continued in the military ranks for years to come.
“In World War I,” Glatthaar said, “they went through the exact same issues, the exact same accusations that blacks didn’t have the character to stand up in combat, that they would all drop their weapons and run, or that they would act like savages and fight uncontrollably and we couldn’t trust them.
“They just denied the fact that 178,000 soldiers had performed superbly in the Civil War. They were reinventing the wheel in World War I and, in fact, again in World War II.”