THE TRUE STORY OF GLORY
Old Slave Mart Museum’s McGill regales in tales 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as portrayed in “Glory”
BY CHARLIE MORRISON – NEWS EDITOR ON FEBRUARY 11, 2015 FEATURED
During his lectures about the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, there are times audiences can’t tell if they are listening to present day Joe McGill or his alter ego, circa 1863 Joe McGill. Sometimes it’s hard t
o tell if he even knows what version of himself he’s speaking in. But it matters not, as the scholar has been speaking to standing room only crowds for weeks. Obviously, the scholar, educator, and part-time reenactor’s part fact, part historical fiction style of portraying history, works.
Last week, as part of a three-part lecture series hosted by the Old Slave Mart Museum, in commemoration of Frederick Douglass’ birthday along with Black History Month, McGill presented a program on the history of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and the story behind the movie “Glory” to yet another packed house at the Museum. For his part, McGill let his creative hair hang down, telling some of the story in the past tense and some in the present, as the aforementioned circa 1863 McGill. The scholar, educator, and Old Slave Mart Museum employee’s program was sponsored by the Humanities Council SC, a state program of the National Endowment of the Humanities.
Before he dove into the history of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, McGill took the opportunity to prime his audience, as he often does, with a dose of context, a dose of reality. “What we don’t want to do is mistake acquiescence as acceptance of being a slave, because anything beyond acquiescence would have been the elimination of a gene pool. Anything beyond acquiescence would mean I probably wouldn’t be here before you tonight,” said McGill in prefacing his telling of the history of the 54th Massachusetts and their fated assault on Battery Wagner.
The history portrayed in “Glory” is that of the creation, transformation, and implementation of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry under Col. Robert Gould Shaw. The diminutive 25-year-old both in the history books and in the screenplay, trained the regiment hard, preparing them for the two battles that gave every black soldier’s boot firm footing on which he (or she) could stand on, and still can today.
Before they made history however, the unit had to survive trial by fire. Their first skirmish served as proving ground for the fated assault on Battery Wagner two days later, but it also claimed many lives.
As JIM columnist Paul Hedden described it in his July 16, 2014 column, their move was a ‘feint.’ “This insignificant ‘feint’ was the Massachusetts’ 54th first time in combat. They did not run, they did not cower. The 54th stood their ground and took an unusually high percentage of casualties: 14 killed; 17 wounded and 12 captured. The 54th suffered more than 93% of all the casualties suffered by Union forces in the fight at the Battle of Sol Legare.”
Two days later on July 18, 1863, at 7:45 in the evening, the men of the 54th, led by Shaw, were running down the beach of Morris Island at a double-quick speed, on the vanguard for the Union’s second assault on the 14-gun fort. With an impassible swamp on their left and the ocean on their right, the 54th and the rest of the Union Army was forced through a bottleneck in their approach to Wagner. It was just beyond that bottleneck that the Confederate soldiers really opened up on the attackers, laying waste to the assault with musket and cannon.
Though it lost a large portion of its men, the 54th Massachusetts did breach the fort, if momentarily, spurred on by their leader Shaw, who fell in the final charge. Men from the 54th climbed over the wooden stakes that ringed the fort, through a ditch, and up the wall of the fort before ultimately falling.
According to the circa 1863 version of Joe McGill, in reenactment character, “That was the opportunity we’d been waiting for. And the battle was lost, but we did prove one thing, that blacks would fight. We would not die with our backs to our enemy.”
“The Northerners say this is a war about preserving the Union. The Southerners say this is a war about states’ rights. But us … we’ve taken on an abolitionist cause. This is morality. No man should be a slave
“And that was their cause,” said present-day McGill, turning back to his present day persona with the seeming flick of a proverbial light switch. “It allows the whole story to be told. All of that might not be pleasant, but it’s important that we tell the whole story.”
All in all over 174,000 free blacks enlisted in the Union Army, directly participating in some 39 skirmishes and being involved in an additional 420 in an ancillary way.
And in short that was the point McGill tried to hammer home throughout the evening: that the freed black man was ready, willing, and able to fight against the Confederate rebels just as well as whites. Or as the circa 1863 Joe McGill would say. “So if anyone should ask you, ‘Will a slave fight?’ tell them no. If anyone should ask ‘Will a negro fight?’ tell them yes.”
The Old Slave Mart Museum, located at 6 Charmers St., recounts the story of Charleston’s role in the inter-state slave trade by focusing on the history of the building that houses the museum and the slave sales that occurred there from 1856-1863. The City of Charleston acquired the property in 1988, reopening it as a museum in 2007. To learn more visit www.oldslavemart.org or call 843-958-6467. Admission is free.
For more information on Joesph McGill, check out his Slave Dwelling Project at http://slavedwellingproject.org. You can also reach McGill through the Old Slave Mart Museum.