The movie Glory, showing Friday in the Museum Park Theater, is a rare story in Civil War film—the role of African Americans in defending the republic from secession and ending slavery. The movie follows Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a wealthy Boston heir, and the 54th Massachusetts (the first official black regiment in the U.S. Army). Until 1863 it was illegal for black men to join the army. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation opened the door.
The real-life regiment was raised with free men of color from New England, Canada, and the Caribbean. The movie depicts a different regiment. Glory’s 54th is composed mostly of escaped slaves, symbolized in Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. But the movie’s change is not as poor as it might seem. Glory uses the composition of the regiment to illustrate the status of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. The USCT ended the war with more than 175 regiments, of which only a few were made of free blacks. Most of the regiments were like the film version—escaped slaves who joined the Army to fight secession and slavery.
The main action of Glory is an attack on Fort Wagner, a large Confederate base near Charleston, South Carolina. Before that attack most black regiments had been used for garrison duty or labor. Soldiers who had joined to fight were digging ditches at lower pay than white men. The attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863 (our showing of the film is just two weeks past the 150th anniversary) changed much of that. Afterward black soldiers were used more and more in combat and helped win the war that reunited the U.S. and ended slavery.
Several paintings in the Museum relate to the Civil War and especially the role of African Americans.
This pre–Civil War painting depicts a German immigrant asking a black man for directions. Based on his stooped stance and ratty clothing, the African American is clearly on the lowest rung of the social ladder. The German immigrant is not far off—distrusted for being foreign, Catholic, and unassimilated into American culture. Both ethnic groups were on the margins of mid-19th-century society; yet they joined the U.S. Army in droves (150,000 immigrants from the German states and 209,000 African Americans) to protect the republic.
The Musicale was painted just a year after the Civil War’s end and shows a group of musicians playing for a small crowd. The band is made up of two white and two black men, dressed similarly to the equally diverse audience in attendance. The painting highlights the accomplishments of the Civil War: the abolition of slavery, proof of African Americans’ courage and patriotism, and a hope for equality. The two black musicians stare out at the viewer with a smile. They know what has been accomplished, possibly by them, but most certainly by their people. And the musicians are enjoying the fruits of sacrifice.
Harriet Tubman was famous before the Civil War for leading African Americans out of slavery and into freedom in Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Law held no power. Douglas’s painting is dedicated to Tubman and her accomplishments. A series of circles expands from the figure of Tubman outward—stretching Tubman herself forward and backward through history. On one side, bowed by the weights they carry, enslaved black Americans trudge up a hill toward Tubman. Tubman herself has her arms raised, breaking the chains that bound her. Though her eyes face back, her stride is forward, leading people onward. Ahead of her is the joy of freedom. There one man holds a hoe, symbolizing the freedom to farm independently; a young woman reads a book, the freedom to gain education; a third man lies back enjoying his leisure time and staring raptly at a towering city.
Despite the title, the originating circle is not on Tubman. Instead, the circle where everything begins centers on the smoking barrel of a cannon. It was war that ended slavery, and the achievements of black Americans in the Civil War that granted them freedom for a future.
Nathan Johnson, security guard at the NCMA, is pursuing a master’s degree in history at N.C. State University.