Noah Rittenberg




The film “Glory” was directed by academy award winning director Edward Zwick, was produced by Freddie Fields, and the screenplay was written by Kevin Jarre. The film stars Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman, and it won three academy awards, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Denzel Washington), Best Cinematography (Freddie Francis), and Best Sound Mixing (Donald O. Mitchell, Gregg Rudloff, Elliot Tyson, and Russell Williams). It was released in 1989 and takes place during the middle of the American Civil War, mainly during 1863.

The film is about the story of Colonel Robert Shaw, portrayed by Broderick, who was a white soldier that accepts the responsibility of leading one of the first ever all-black regiments for the Union army, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. He selects his friend Cabot Forbes, portrayed by Elwes, to be his second in command with the rank of Major, and together they lead the unit. Shaw was born into a family of abolitionists and gets this opportunity to lead the regiment from his father, who was a close friend of the Governor of Massachusetts at the time.

Historical and Cultural Context:

This film was made to tell the story about how so many black men wanted to fight in the war, and how even after they enlisted, they were mainly still treated as less than their white counterparts. Although they were fighting for the Union, who wanted to end slavery, the were still treated as slaves in some ways. They were denied shoes, clothing, and they were forced to do manual labor instead of going to combat. Even though they were refused these items that every other soldier received, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment still wanted to fight for the Union. To add to this point more, in response to the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy issued an order that all black soldiers would be returned to slavery and black soldiers that were found in uniform would be executed. When Shaw finds out about this order, he offers the chance for the soldiers to take an honorable discharge from the military, but the soldiers decline this option.

The film also shows how Colonel Shaw did everything in his power to make sure that his unit was treated equally to all other Union regiments in the war. One example of this is when Shaw learned that the black soldiers were receiving less pay than their white counterparts, after being promised equal pay. Shaw instructed his men to refuse pay until Congress granted them equal pay. Shaw and all other white commanders in the unit also refused pay.

Near the end of the film, the Union was looking for an infantry regiment to lead the attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, believing that the capture of the fort would make an enormous change to the outcome of the war. Shaw volunteered the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, even though they had just spent over two days with no rest. Shaw was trying to prove that his unit of black soldiers will go into this battle knowing they will likely take heavy casualties, in order to help the Union’s cause. The attack on Fort Wagner was ultimately a failure and led to the death of Shaw and Forbes, as well as the deaths of about fifty percent of the soldiers in his unit. However, when the news came out about how a unit of black soldiers were willing to risk their lives for the Union, a surge of black people started to enlist to fight in the war. This became a massive advantage for the Union, as they suddenly had over 100,000 more soldiers than before.

Themes and Style:

Zwick and Jarre used many rhetorical strategies to make viewers interested in the film. One of the best examples of pathos that the film uses is during a scene where Private Trigg, played by Denzel Washington, is caught trying to desert, and Colonel Shaw orders Major Forbes to whip him. When Trigg takes off his shirt, there are already numerous whip marks on his back from when he was a slave. Forbes then shows hesitations about whipping Trigg, but Shaw cannot show preference to any soldiers, so decides to continue with the order. After Trigg gets whipped again, we learn that he was not deserting, he was just trying to go out and find some shoes to wear. This scene shows the parallel between slavery and the way that black soldiers were treated during the American Civil War. Despite the fact that these people were not slaves, they were still treated as such by some leaders in the military. Even though the way that they were treated under slavery could easily be considered harsher than the way they were treated as soldiers, the whipping scene in the film shows that the difference was not as big as one might think it was.

When this film came out, millions of Americans had no idea about the historical impact that black soldiers had on the war. There had never been a major film that had shown black soldiers fighting in the American Civil War before Glory. This was one of the main reasons that Zwick decided to create this film. It also shows the way that the black soldiers fighting in the war impacted black lives today. Without the actions of these soldiers, it is very possible that the Union would not have won the war. There would be no way that society would have reached the place we are now in the civil right movement if the Confederacy had won the war.

There is a large connection between the way the black soldiers were viewed during the American Civil War and the way that black people are sometimes treated today. People thought that since they were not slaves, and since Lincoln had given the Emancipation Proclamation, black people would be satisfied. Even the leaders of the Union thought that it would not matter if they did not get as much pay as white soldiers, they would just be happy to not have to worry about being slaves. This is similar to some situations in America today, because unfortunately there are still many people who think that black people have everything they need in today’s society and that racism does not exist anymore. Also, more than 150 years after the American Civil War ended, there are still stories of racism and black men and women being mistreated in the military.

Critical Conversation:

Some of the critical conversation surrounding this film involves questions such as “why were black soldiers still treated like lesser people by other Union soldiers even though they were on the same side?” and “why did the black soldiers continue to fight for the Union after the Union treated them like second class people”? Dr. Kitae Song argues that black soldiers had a high level of human capital – much higher than black non-soldiers, and no lower than white non-soldiers, which means that in theory they should not have been treated any worse than white citizens. Also, George H. Junne argues that if black soldiers had been forbidden from fighting in the American Civil War, the war would have been tipped in the favor of the Confederacy.

Howard C. Westwood thought that the impact of arming black people would go greatly beyond the outcome of the American Civil War. He says, “Arming blacks carried political and social implications extending beyond wartime service. This major and irreversible consequence of the conflict forced commanders in the field as well as legislators and administrators in Washington to reappraise traditional thought and practice. Some rode, others resisted, the revolutionary tide. Consequently, on the battle lines as well as at Washington, inconsistency pervaded the treatment of black soldiers” (Westwood). In a letter that Colonel Shaw wrote to his father, he talks about how people are shocked that black people can be civilized and be good soldiers. He wrote that “the mustering officer, who was here today, is a Virginian, and has always thought it was a great joke to try to make soldiers of blacks, but he told me today, that he had never mustered in so fine a set of men” (Shaw 316).

After Colonel Shaw’s death, his father sent a letter to President Lincoln, which said “Our colored soldiers have proved their devotion and valor in the field; they deserve that their rights and the responsibilities of the Government towards them shall be proclaimed to the world and shall be maintained against all enemies” (Vierow). Vierow states that Shaw’s father wants the government to protect the black soldiers, especially after the Confederacy’s declaration that black soldiers captured in uniform will be killed. Vierow argues that it was this letter along with the bravery that the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment showed when they lead the assault on Fort Wagner that lead to a lot more black people enlisted to fight for the Union. This rise in enlistments greatly helped the Union defeat the Confederacy and win the war.

A critique of the film, given by Roger Ebert, was that “Watching “Glory,” I had one recurring problem. I didn’t understand why it had to be told so often from the point of view of the 54th’s white commanding officer. Why did we see the black troops through his eyes – instead of seeing him through theirs? To put it another way, why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor? I ask, not to be perverse, but because I consider this primarily a story about a black experience and do not know why it has to be seen largely through white eyes.” (Ebert).

Works Cited:

  1. Ebert, Roger. “Glory Movie Review & Film Summary (1989) | Roger Ebert.” com, 12 Jan. 1990,
  2. Junne, George H. A History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Colored Infantry in the Civil War: The Real Story Behind the Movie Glory. Lewiston, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2012.
  3. Shaw, Robert Gould, and Russell McFeely, William S. Duncan. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1992.
  4. Sohn, Kitae. “The Human Capital of Black Soldiers during the American Civil War.” Economics Letters, vol. 122, no. 1, 2014, pp. 40–43.
  5. Vierow, Wendy. The Assault on Fort Wagner: Black Soldiers Make a Stand in South Carolina Battle. 2004.
  6. Westwood, Howard., and Simon, John Y. Black Troops, White Commanders and Freedmen during the Civil War. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Further Reading:

  1. Berlin, Ira. Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  2. Gooding, James Henry, et al. On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier’s Civil War Letters from the Front. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
  3. Humphreys, Margaret. Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
  4. Williams, George Washington. A History of the Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1865. New York, Fordham University Press, 2012.



Edward Zwick

Denzel Washington

Robert Shaw



Civil War

Black soldiers