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Posted on Nov 28, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Hollywood Got It Wrong

By Wyatt Kingseed

1.jpgGlory – 1989 by Edward Zwick

Perhaps the best Civil War film, Glory depicts the career of Robert Gould Shaw, an aristocratic white Bostonian and son of an influential abolitionist. Shaw led the nearly all-black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, in its failed assault of Fort Wagner near Charleston Harbor in 1863.

The film shows the black unit as mainly comprised of run-away slaves. Most have little education and are dirt poor. Not true. In reality, the 600-man unit was primarily composed of middle-class free blacks from across the North. Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew of Massachusetts had called for recruits—some came from as far away as Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.


Director Zwick lionizes Shaw in the film and over-dramatizes his actual role in several scenes. Such embellishment is unnecessary. For example, Shaw initially declined the offer to lead the regiment, going so far as to ask his father to hand-deliver a letter to that effect to Governor Andrew. Shaw later changed his mind. The film depicts him accepting the commission immediately to emphasize his personal courage.

Captain Luis Emilio, a 54th veteran, published the definitive history of the regiment in the 1890’s. His account debunks Shaw’s role in other scenes, including the unit’s refusal to accept less pay than being given white soldiers. The government did initially intend to deduct $3 as a uniform allowance for the 54th, and the soldiers did refuse pay, but much of that crisis occurred after the Fort Wagner fight. Shaw wrote one letter to argue for equal pay, but it was Governor Andrew who forced the issue, which did not get resolved until eighteen months later, well after Shaw’s death. Emilio’s detailed history makes no mention of Shaw or any white officer joining the protest. And, nowhere does the former captain describe Shaw having to threaten a quartermaster to obtain boots.

Finally, the most dramatic scene in the film has Shaw ordering the whipping of a troublesome black recruit. This is not credible given the officer’s character. Besides, the Union Army outlawed flogging in 1861, two years before the film’s events took place. While some unscrupulous officers may have occasionally resorted to the whip for disciplinary reasons, they did so at their peril. A famous real life incident occurred in 1863 at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Benedict’s flogging of two black drummer boys resulted in a near uprising of his troops. A court martial later drummed Benedict out of the service for “inflicting cruel and unusual punishment, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.”

The film ends with a postscript that says Fort Wagner never fell to Union forces, presumably to demonstrate that the 54th was up against insurmountable odds, making their sacrifice that much greater and noble. This is incorrect as federal troops successfully lay siege to the post following the failed assault by Shaw. Confederate forces abandoned the site two months later.

1.jpgThey Died with Their Boots On – 1941 by Raoul Walsh

Walsh played fast and loose with the facts, leaving his portrait of the life of George Armstrong Custer far from the truth. History has not been kind to the cavalry officer. Since the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn his popular image has deteriorated badly. Once a lionized authentic American hero, Custer is now more commonly considered a reviled murderous scoundrel, killer of Native American women and children, and an inept commander whose tactical blunders caused the Last Stand debacle. While the truth is somewhere in the middle, director Walsh stood firmly in the camp of the idolaters. He paints Custer (in the guise of handsome Errol Flynn) as a noble figure, bent on defending Indians against encroaching Whites and unscrupulous businessmen. It is a giant farce with several preposterous scenes, large and small.

By most accounts, Custer subscribed to General Phil Sheridan’s belief that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In truth, Custer may have identified, or at least admired the Plainsmen’s simple way of life; but he showed little mercy on the battlefield, particularly in the 1868 confrontation on the Washita River. Historical records suggest that other films, such as 1970’s Little Big Man, disingenuously exaggerate the nature of that fight to denigrate Custer, but certainly the Seventh Cavalry slaughtered some defenseless non-combatants that bloody morning. Walsh skips over the atrocity.

Walsh also ignores Custer’s own attempt to exploit the Native Americans by leading a foray into the Dakota Territory to find gold in 1874. And Walsh romanticizes Custer’s actual court martial in 1867 for abandoning his post to visit his wife to the East. Walsh barely refers to the incident; when he does, he has charges brought forth by an unscrupulous Indian agent. In fact, were it not for Sheridan’s intervention with President Grant, who despised the ambitious officer, Custer would have run out of the army. Walsh resolves the crisis with a fictional confrontation between Custer and Grant in the Oval Office. Had such a meeting took place, it likely would have ended with the President’s boot firmly affixed to Custer’s rear end.

Most jarring is how the director deals with Chief Crazy Horse. In reality the two leaders never met one another face to face. Walsh manages to bring them together in three separate scenes, each a figment of the director’s imagination. In the first, Custer captures the warrior in route to Fort Lincoln—he later escapes. In the second scene, Custer personally promises Crazy Horse that the Seventh Cavalry will defend their rights against White settlers; and in the third, Crazy Horse fires the bullet that kills the last man standing at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Custer of course. Finally, Walsh credits Custer with knowingly sacrificing his small forces to prevent the warring Indians from swooping down upon General Terry’s unsuspecting regiment.

Despite over sixty-five years of trying, as American history, They Died with Their Boots On reached a level of historical inaccuracy in film not yet equaled.

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