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Additional Helpful Background

Post-Viewing Handout

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges To Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

Additional Helpful Background:

Before the summer of 1863, a few experimental black units had been organized by Union Commanders. Some of these regiments won plaudits for their performance but their actions were not well known in the North. The performance of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment during the summer of 1863 in the almost suicidal attack on Fort Wagner was the first engagement in which the participation of black soldiers received wide publicity. By the end of the war there were approximately 198,000 black soldiers in the U.S. Army and the Navy. They may have been decisive in turning the tide of the war.

After the assault on Fort Wagner, a reconstituted 54th Massachusetts, still consisting of black volunteers led by white officers, fought for the rest of the war. The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts were among the Union troops that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, when it surrendered in February of 1865. They sang "John Brown's Body" as they entered the city.

The Emancipation Proclamation had strong psychological and political effects. It made allies of many slaves in the South. It was welcomed by the working class in Great Britain (which was strongly against slavery), stopping in its tracks a plan by British politicians to give assistance to the South. Had England entered the war on the side of the South, the result could have been very different. The Emancipation Proclamation also caused terrible riots in the North by workingmen afraid of competition from newly freed black slaves.

Before the Civil War, abolitionists were regarded in most states as dangerous radicals who were going to drive the South out of the Union and, perhaps, cause a civil war.

The Massachusetts 54th consisted of 1,000 men. Six hundred of these men participated in the attack on Fort Wagner, the remainder having been left behind as a camp guard, in the hospital, as a fatigue detail, or having been killed or wounded in the recent fight on James Island.

Frederick Douglass (1817 - 1895) escaped slavery and became a leading spokesman for abolition before and during the Civil War. His gifts as an orator propelled him to the head of the anti-slavery movement. He was largely self-educated, as he put it "a recent graduate from the institution of slavery with his diploma on his back." The threat of being seized and returned to his "owner" under the Fugitive Slave Law forced him into exile in England where he continued the crusade. Eventually, supporters purchased his freedom and he returned to the U.S. He then took charge of the Underground Railroad in Rochester, New York. Douglass was associated with John Brown but withdrew from the conspiracy when Brown revealed that he intended to attack Federal property. During the Civil War Douglass helped raise two regiments of black soldiers, the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Volunteer Regiments. Two of his sons were the first to volunteer for the 54th and one was the Sergeant Major of the regiment. After the war, Douglass became a spokesmen for former slaves nationwide. He also served as Marshall for the District of Columbia, Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, and U.S. Minister to Haiti.
When visiting Boston be sure to see the monument to Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th. It is on the Boston Common, directly across the street from the Statehouse.
The Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment was the first official regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army. All the commissioned officers were white. The soldiers and the officers felt that it was up to them to prove that black troops could fight well, and while the performance of the 54th was the first publicized heroic engagement by black troops and quite important, it was not the major catalyst in convincing the Union Army to accept more black soldiers. That process had begun several months before.

Many of the specific incidents shown in the film are true, including the enthusiastic sendoff from Boston, the destruction of the South Carolina town of Darien and Colonel Shaw's objection to this action, the initial prejudice of many white troops, Shaw's action in handing letters to a newspaper reporter before he died, and the 54th's heroic and almost suicidal assault on Fort Wagner. However, there are several incidental inaccuracies. They include the following: (1) most of the members of the regiment were not former slaves, but had been free all of their lives; (2) the refusal to accept reduced pay was at Shaw's initiative; it did not come from the ranks (see Letters by Shaw to his father and his sister-in-law dated July 1, 1863 -- this scene is justified, however, to show the fact that many black soldiers from the Massachusetts 54th and other regiments repeatedly requested and demanded equal pay; see Foner pp. 253 & 254); (3) after the burning of Darien, Colonel Shaw discovered that Montgomery had been acting under specific orders of his commander, Major General David Hunter (See letters June 26 and June 28, 1963); Shaw later came to like and respect Montgomery; (4) Shaw did not have to blackmail a Union officer to get his troops into battle; (5) our review of Shaw's correspondence reveals no situation in which he had to threaten a Union Army quartermaster to get shoes for his soldiers and (6) the film omits any mention of Shaw's wife. Everything being considered, TWM estimates that the movie is 90% accurate.

Post-viewing Handout for Glory
Teachers may want to provide the following handout for students to read in-class or as homework. For a version of the handout in word processing format, click here. In the alternative, the handout could be read to the class or, following the teacher as facilitator approach, students can be asked to find this information, alone or in groups.
The Two Women in Colonel Shaw's Life

Mother: Colonel Shaw was risking his life more than if he had been an ordinary officer in the Union Army when he agreed to lead the Massachusetts 54th. Confederates summarily executed captured white officers who led black troops and Shaw knew that he would have to lead his regiment into their first battles, making himself a prime target for deadly Southern sharpshooters. If you had taken a command of an army unit in such circumstances what would your father and mother say?

Robert Gould Shaw came from a family of strong abolitionists. His father had founded the National Freedman's Relief Association. He was supportive of Shaw's actions. Shaw's mother was strongly in favor of his acceptance of the Colonelcy of a black regiment. She wrote to him: "God rewards a hundredfold every good aspiration of his children, and this is my reward for asking [for] my children not earthly honors, but souls to see the right and courage to follow it. Now I feel ready to die, for I see you willing to give your support to the cause of truth that is lying crushed and bleeding." Burchard, One Gallant Rush p. 74.

Wife: Shaw was married to Annie Haggerty shortly before he assumed command of the regiment. He was able to spend only a few weeks with his new wife between their wedding and the assault on Fort Wagner. On the day of the assault, Shaw's second in command, Ned Hallowell, found Shaw alone, lying near the pilot house on the top deck of the ship that was taking the regiment to the scene of the battle. Hallowell said: "Rob, don't you feel well? Why are you so sad?"

Shaw replied, "Oh Ned! If I could live a few weeks longer with my wife, and be home a little while I think I might die happy. But it cannot be. I do not believe I will live through our next fight." An hour later Shaw came down and Hallowell reported that: "All the sadness had passed from his face, and he was perfectly cheerful...." Burchard, One Gallant Rush p. 130.

As Colonel, it was Shaw's choice of whether he would lead his men at the front of the assault, or whether he would bring up the rear. He chose to lead at the front.

The Burial of the Dead Soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th and their Colonel:

After the assault, Iredell Jones, a confederate officer who had witnessed the battle said, "the Negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a colonel as ever lived." However, the Confederates tried to dishonor Colonel Shaw in death. After the battle the Union Army sought to collect its dead for burial, a common practice during the war. This request was granted for the white soldiers who died in the battle but refused as to Shaw and his men. As an insult, the Confederates stripped Colonel Shaw's body and tossed it into the bottom of a trench, along with the rest of his men. Union efforts to retrieve Colonel Shaw's body and those of his men were rebuffed. There was great indignation in the North about the Confederates' refusal to comply with the usual rules of war with regard to Colonel Shaw.

Shaw's father ended the dispute issuing the following statement for the family:
    We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers....We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. what a body-guard he has!
The statement was widely publicized in the North. What the Confederates had meant as an insult, turned into an honor, increasing Shaw's stature as a hero.

[End of Handout]


Additional Discussion Questions:

Continued from the Learning Guide. . .

4. Trip, the character played by Denzel Washington, is cranky and contrary yet by the end of the film he has grown considerably. What evidence can you offer that illustrates his change? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Midway in the film Trip says to Shaw that he is not fighting this war for the Colonel. He says that the blacks will get nothing, win or lose. When he is asked to carry the flag into battle, an honored task, he refuses. But at the end of the film, he prays with the other soldiers and he fights admirably against overwhelming odds. He picks up the flag when the color guard is shot. He dies in battle.

5.  Several incidents of racism in the film indicate that, at least originally, many in the North were not fighting the war in support of justice for blacks. Lincoln's Second Inaugural tells us that the goals of the war had changed by 1864. What was the change and why did that change come about? Suggested Response While keeping the modern world's first great democratic republic from splintering apart was an important goal and certainly worth a war, the great blood-letting caused by the Civil War required an even more fundamental goal, not only to preserve the Unioin but to purge from the Union the great evil of slavery. After all, how can a country be a beacon of liberty when 1/8th of its citizens are slaves? In addition, more than 198,000 black men had joined the Union army or navy and had fought in the war. 37,000 had died. Black Americans had done their part in the war and it didn't make sense for them or their families to be slaves. Finally, to outlaw slavery would destroy the power base of the Southern interests that had caused the war.

6.  Why is this film told through the eyes of the regiment's white Colonel? Suggested Response: Some possible responses: the white audience is larger than the black audience; the film is about changing white perceptions of the ability of black soldiers; the fact that Colonel Shaw was not black and had no vested interest in proving that black soldiers could fight makes his sacrifice even more poignant than the sacrifices of the black soldiers, no matter how heroic those were.

7.  What were most of the Union soldiers fighting for, an end to slavery or preservation of the Union? Suggested Response: Most of the Union soldiers, certainly at the beginning of the war, were not fighting to end slavery. Instead, they were fighting to preserve the Union.

8.  In the 1860s, why was the preservation of the Union important to the cause of democracy worldwide? Suggested Response: The United States was one of the few democracies in the world and one of the largest. If the U.S. could not hold itself together against the forces of disintegration, it would have set back the cause of democracy for many decades, perhaps for centuries.

9.  U.S. history (and the history of most countries) is replete with men and women who served their country at great risk of their lives and who died as a result. Why did they do this? What would you risk your life for? Suggested Response: A person will risk his life when he or she realizes that there is something more important than just continuing to live. Sometimes, it's hard to imagine what those circumstances might be, but for the Union soldiers in the Civil War, it was one of two things. For most, it was the continuation of the most vibrant and largest experiment in democracy the world had ever seen. For others, a lesser number, it was to free men, women and children from the yoke of slavery. And there were always other motives. For many, it was just to get away from the monotonous drudgery of farm work. Some men love the military, the uniform, the pageantry, and the idea of serving their country. For the men of the Massachusetts 54th it was also to prove that black men would not run away when fired upon and that they had the discipline to be effective soldiers in a modern army.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


1..  Give some examples of how Colonel Shaw exhibited leadership in his regiment? Suggested Response: Here are a few: advocating for the men to get equal pay with the white soldiers, imposing strict discipline, getting shoes for the men and advocating for them generally, and leading the charge on the Fort.


2.  In the Civil War, defensive technology (such as repeating rifles) gave defenders a great advantage. Can you explain why tens of thousands of soldiers on each side, in battle after battle, had the commitment and the courage to march in regular order against the withering fire of the defenders while those around them fell with hideous and usually fatal wounds? Suggested Response: Loyalty to the unit, peer pressure, not wanting to be called a coward, fear of courts-martial, and commitment to the cause.

3.  How does the virtually hopeless attack on Fort Wagner differ from the charge on the Turkish trenches by the ANZAC soldiers in WWI shown in the film Gallipoli? Suggested Response: The only difference was that the soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th proved in the attack on Fort Wagner that black soldiers could fight well in a modern war against hopeless odds; they triumphed even though they were unable to take the Fort.

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)


(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)

1.  Colonel Shaw believed that slavery and racial prejudice was a scourge on the nation and he was willing to give his life to destroy one of the most frequently used arguments to support it. Can you think of anything as patriotic that a U.S. citizen could do? Suggested Response: Responses will differ but the overall idea is that it was very patriotic.

2.  Why did Colonel Shaw decide to take the colonelcy of the 54th Massachusetts when he knew that it would probably led to his death? Would you have made the same decision in the circumstances? Suggested Response: His devotion to the cause of abolition was more important to him than his life.

3.  In the assault on Fort Wagner, Colonel Shaw could have chosen, without any dishonor, to lead his regiment from the rear rather than from the front. He probably would have survived. Why didn't he do this, especially given the fact that he had just been married and had obligations to his new wife? Suggested Response: His devotion to the cause of abolition was so strong that it over-road those over values.

Additional Assignments:

Continued from the Learning Guide . . .

4.  There has been some criticism of the film in terms of its use of emotional appeal. Write an opinion essay in which you use scenes from the film, dialogue and action to support your belief that the movie is accurate or overly sentimental in its depiction of the soldiers, their cause and the interaction between the characters. Conclude your essay with your opinion about whether sentiment was of greater importance than factual presentation in terms of telling the story.

5.   Write a formal paper describing the history of the Massachusetts 54th from its inception to the end of the Civil War.

6.   Write an essay on the question of whether strong commitment to a cause, a commitment that is stronger than the commitment to life itself, is a beneficial thing. What is the difference between Colonel Shaw and a suicide bomber?

Bridges to Reading:

For an eloquent description of why the slavery was added as a purpose of the Civil War, see, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World by James Carroll, pages 209 - 216.

Books specifically about Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th include: "We'll Stand By the Union": Robert Gould Shaw & the Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment by Peter Burchard and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard. Colonel Shaw's letters are collected in Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, edited by Russell Duncan. The most interesting letters are the following: 1861: May 2 (recounting an introductory meeting with President Lincoln); 1862: September 25 and October 5, 1962; 1863: February 20, February 23, March 30, April 1, May 2, June 1, 3, 13, 15, 17, 18, 20, 22, 26 - 7, 28, and July 1, 3 - 6, 4, 6, 9-13, 15, 17 & 18.

For good readers try the best selling historical novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. This book is historically accurate and details the battle of Gettysburg. It forms the basis for the film Gettysburg. There are thousands of excellent books on the Civil War. Reference librarians are a good source for recommendations. Books that we have reviewed and which are excellent are listed below: Gettysburg: The Final Fury by eminent historian Bruce Catton. This short work contains 41 illustrations and 5 maps. It describes the battle and its historical context. The Boys' War by Jim Murphy describes in text and pictures the experience of children who fought in the War. It won the Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction in 1990. If you are interested in visiting Civil War battle sites, look at the National Geographic Guide to Civil War Battlefield Parks.

Links to the Internet:

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:  1989 Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Washington), Best Cinematography, Best Sound; 1990 Golden Globe Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Washington; 1989 Academy Award Nominations: Best Film Editing; Best Art Direction - Set Decoration; 1990 Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Score; Best Screenplay.

Featured Actors:  Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Jihmi Kennedy, Andre Braugher, John Finn, Donovan Leitch, John Cullum, Bob Gunton, Jane Alexander, Raymond St. Jacques, Cliff DeYoung.

Director:  Edward Zwick.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Past Imperfect, Mark C. Carnes, Ed., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995;
  • One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard; St. Martin's Press; 1965;
  • Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, edited by Russell Duncan, The University of Georgia Press, 1992.
  • Foote, Lorien (2003). Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-century Reform. Ohio University Press (page 120 for quote from Shaw's father).
  • The Fiery Trial — Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner, W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.

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