The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry (2005)

The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry (2005) The story of the Massachusetts 54th Colored Troop emerges as a portion of the larger story of black slavery, pre-war abolitionist activities, especially those of John Brown, Frederick Douglas, and Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, and the emergence of a white man’s war complicated by the vexing implications of the slave issue.

The film emphasizes the struggles faced during the initial recruitment efforts of Governor Andrew, who sought to create an elite colored regiment of free blacks who had risen above the ranks of common laborer. Despite the persuasive powers of Frederick Douglass, there were insufficient volunteers from Massachusetts to fill the regiment. Thus, and it was necessary for him to send recruiters to other states. Black men originally enlisted for the same pay and uniform, under the same conditions as white volunteers, yet only white officers were appointed for black troops. Within months, the U.S. Congress passed laws lowering the pay scale from a soldier’s pay of $13.00 a month to camp laborer pay of $10.00. The 54th refused to accept pay throughout the war until this law was altered to provide full soldier’s pay.

Much of the film’s narrative covers political side issues not related directly to the 54th Massachusetts, the majority of the narrative. The 54th’s first action on the battlefield on St. James Island and the more famous vanguard position in the attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, S.C. receive only a few minutes coverage. The further activities of the 54th until the end of the war also receive little attention. It is clear that the intent of the filmmakers was to explore the broad aspects of African American experiences before and during the war.

The broader political/social issues are intertwined throughout the film in logical theme fashion, but illogical chronological fashion. To someone not thoroughly familiar with the early 19th century, the issues causing the Civil War, and the Civil War itself, all the issues seem to be happening at the same time. Although the facts are accurate, the final impressions are misleading.

The film could be very useful to an American Studies approach to the Civil War or a portion of black history where the scholarly emphasis is on social and philosophical themes. Archival photographs of individuals and groups of black soldiers, period etchings of war time conditions, modern film of historic buildings and locations, and shots of newspaper clippings are skillfully woven together. Songs, letters, oral histories by descendents, and historical assessments by reputable historians like James Horton and Barbara Fields add to the film’s credibility.
Nancy L. Zens Central Oregon Community College nzens@cocc.edu

 

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