To Make “Glory,” Hollywood Moved the Atlantic Ocean

These 54th Massachusetts reenactors helped make the Battery Wagner battle commemoration very special. NPS photo.

Battle scenes from the 1989 movie Glory highlighted Fort Sumter National Monument’s recent commemoration of the 146th anniversary of the assault on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the Civil War’s most famous African American unit The Atlantic Ocean was not where it was supposed to be, however, and that took a little explaining.

By the summer of 1863, the Union realized that naval bombardment was not going to clear away the Confederate fortifications guarding Charleston harbor. Using the huge guns of the Union blockading fleet to make the brick rubble bounce at Fort Sumter and to churn sand and logs on the beaches was an expensive and time-consuming exercise in frustration.

The Federals decided that capturing the harbor’s land-based fortifications and turning them into Union artillery positions might be the only way to break the stalemate. Fort Moultrie, which guarded the harbor from the northern (Sullivans Island) side, was deemed too tough a nut to crack. But Battery Wagner (aka Fort Wagner) on the harbor’s southern (Morris Island) side was seen as possibly vulnerable to a well-mounted infantry assault. In the modern parlance, capturing Battery Wagner was a “definite maybe” and thus worth a try.

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment, an African American unit (except for its officers), was famously assigned to the task. Despite a heroic effort that heaped eternal glory on the 54th Massachusetts, Battery Wagner remained in Confederate hands when the smoke cleared to reveal dozens of metal-torn bodies scattered along the beach and within the fort’s outer defenses. Among the regiment’s 272 casualties were 117 killed, including unit commander Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Though it's entered in the history books as a Union defeat, the 54th Massachusetts assault on Battery Wagner was one the Civil War’s great stories of courage, devotion, and sacrifice. In the aftermath of the battle, the enlistment and mobilization of African American troops increased dramatically, contributing significantly to the ultimate Union victory.

If you’ve seen the movie Glory, you’ve seen this inspirational story told as only Hollywood can tell it. By this I don’t just mean that there’s an interesting story line, competent acting, lots of drama, intense action, and some excellent cinematography. I also mean that only in Hollywood is it OK to rotate the Atlantic Ocean, beaches and all, one hundred and eighty degrees.

Battery Wagner was situated south of Charleston Harbor, so when the 54th Massachusetts assaulted it on July 18, 1863, they had to move northward along the beach with the Atlantic Ocean on their right. But the movie’s Battery Wagner battle scenes were filmed in Georgia, and the realities of that particular beachfront location required the actors to charge southward. This put the Atlantic Ocean on their left. What you see up there on the big screen is actually an infantry assault headed down the beach in the general direction of Florida. How interesting that they found Battery Wagner along the way!

OK, enough of the historical nit-picking. The battle anniversary commemoration that was staged at Charleston last weekend was a dandy. I wish I could have been among the SRO crowd of 150 that jammed the auditorium for the film viewing. I hate that I couldn’t enjoy the living history presentation by the 54th Massachusetts reenactor unit or get interpretive ranger Donel Singleton’s take on the historical facts and meanings of the events that took place on bloody Morris Island – long since washed away by the sea -- 146 years ago this month.

Comments

Ha! Bob, this is one of my all-time favorite movies and you are NOT going to ruin it for me by telling me the regiment was charging in the wrong direction and happened to assault the next fort down by mistake! Although, that will be my thought each time I see this movie from now on. "WRONG WAY, guys! Oh, OK, go ahead and take that fort instead!" ;-)

Sorry, Bruce. I recommend that you do like I do -- just smile and enjoy the movie, inside joke and all. It's a pretty darn good flick, actually. Any time you get Morgan Freeman and Danzell Washington together, you've got the makings of a great movie. OK, OK; I'll throw in Mathew Broderick too.

Just pulled Glory off the shelf and watched it this week. After pulling out the maps, I was confused about the movie's orientation of the siege. Hollywood, why did you mess this up!? Why didn't they just cut and flip that part of the film reel? I was so frustrated, I actually pulled a long mirror out of my closet and set it up to watch the seige in the correct direction. Much more realistic. Then I was surfing and found your helpful article here. Thanks for the explanation..... But really Zwick's Glory inspired me as a white teenager in Texas, on many levels, not the least of which was standing by the right, even to the sacrifice of life itself. I am grateful for his dignified re-telling of our messy past...and forever grateful for the courage of the 54th. Amazing, we're now at 149 - 150 years since the Charleston campaign. Kyrie Eleison. May we continue to stand up for the dignity of all life, from slave to free, boss to pee-on, blue-collar to white-collar, and womb to tomb.