-- section titles are from
the DVD version --
The film begins as Captain Shaw narrates a letter written home to his
mother with his thoughts on the war and its purpose. All the while,
viewers see various camp activities and games of the Civil War soldier
and then sights of Union fighters mobilizing in preparation for battle.
of battle converge with recent technological advances in weaponry to show
the true horrors of war, especially as seen on this bloody day in September
1862. (0:05:20) Union soldiers retreat momentarily as Captain Shaw
falls on the battlefield, having been shot slightly in the neck.
(0:06:31) Capt. Shaw wakes from an unconscious state to witness a battlefield
strewn with bodies of soldiers, both dead and injured, but still very close
to the ongoing fight, just over a ridge.
Captain Shaw is seen
in a busy field hospital by a fellow officer since all the surgeons are
busy treating other men. He tells Shaw of a rumor anticipating President
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as he removes the bullet from his neck,
all the while Shaw sits patiently spectating a ghastly procedure amputating
a fellow soldier's leg.
The Shaw party
Captain Shaw, uneasily
meanders through his house back home in Boston at one of his parents' abolitionist
gathering. Shaw meets Governor Andrew and Frederick Douglass after
speaking briefly to childhood friend Thomas Searles, an educated and free
black man. Shaw is promoted to Colonel and subsequently asked to
lead the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which will be the first black division
in the Union's army. (0:12:45) Shaw escapes outside to ponder
his promotion and is joined by another childhood friend and fellow officer,
Cabot Forbes, who after discussing the idea with Shaw is asked to be a
part of it. Thomas joins his white friends outside and asks to be
the regiment's first volunteer.
Colonel Shaw on horseback
rides past the amassed crowds of black men who have come from all over
to enlist and be a part of the 54th. He introduces himself to the
men and blesses their purpose. (0:16:22) Company officers attempt
to make order of the massive crowd and begin the process of officially
enlisting the men.
The poorly dressed
enlistees, walking past insults from white Union soldiers, enter Readville
Camp where they will be trained in the coming weeks. (0:18:00) Four
soldiers and a drummer boy enter their tent for the first night.
Thomas Searles, Jupiter Sharts, and John Rawlins meet each other and the
embittered ex-slave Trip. (0:20:40) At next morning's breakfast,
Thomas seeks out Major Forbes for conversation but is interrupted when
Col. Shaw calls Forbes aside, telling his friend that he will not allow
fraternization with the enlisted men, whether it be Thomas or not.
Sgt. Major Mulcahy
arrives and begins his exhausting and humiliating version of training to
convert the men into soldiers. (0:23:55) After Col. Shaw instructs
Forbes to check up on their order of uniforms, he narrates another letter
home, confirming the confidence he has in the black unit. (0:24:42)
Major Forbes delivers urgent news to Shaw of a Confederate dictum which
the Colonel subsequently reads aloud to the assembled men. This Confederate
Congress-issued proclamation announces their claim to put to death any
negro in uniform and likewise any white officer found in command of a negro
unit. The colonel commands that any soldier wishing to leave will
be able to in the morning following official separation procedures.
The next morning, however, all the men gather in formation, having not
lost a single member of the regiment to the threat from the Confederates.
John Rawlins distributes
the recently arrived 57-caliber in-field rifle muskets. The soldiers
pretend they're at battle with their new arms while Col. Shaw watches from
aside, recalling the horrors of real battle and quite unable to see the
fun they're having. (0:31:29) Jupiter employs his squirrel hunting
skills to reveal his astonishing accuracy with the weapon. Both Forbes
and his fellow men are impressed until Shaw makes an example of Jupiter
when he is unable, as commanded, to discharge and reload three aimed shots
within a minute.
It is my job
Maj. Forbes confronts
Col. Shaw to question his methods of training and especially how he treats
their childhood friend, Thomas. Shaw's response is one of poise and
purpose, in which he reminds Cabot rather defensively that he is getting
the men ready for battle, despite the possibility that the unit may never
fight. The colonel attempts to convey his viewpoint of their obligation
to train the black men who have come to join their regiment.
Sgt. Maj. Mulcahy
facilitates bayonet practice and takes it upon himself to single out the
worst soldier in the company, Thomas, who falters miserably in the exercise
and falls to the ground, sobbing. Shaw, watching uncomfortably from
aside, orders the Sergeant Major to discipline an inappropriate comment
from Pvt. Trip. The colonel, who is then confronted by Thomas, reminds
him that he must get permission to speak to his commanding officer.
(0:38:57) Back in their tent, the four black soldiers talk about Colonel
Shaw and on some level agree that their commanding officer is a hard man.
Trip antagonizes Thomas and then proceeds to unsuccessfully tempt Jupiter
to join him in a search for shoes and extra food. (0:42:00) Shaw
narrates another letter as he walks through his soldiers' camps, discussing
the distance he feels between himself and the black soldiers. He
encounters Thomas, who at first hesitates but then wishes Robert a merry
Christmas, to which Robert reiterates. (0:43:45) Shaw attends a holiday
party for officers, stomaching numerous racist insults toward his unit
from Kendric, a quartermaster who invites Shaw to his office for some local
jam. (0:45:36) The next morning, Shaw is informed of a deserter who
happens to be Pvt. Trip. Sgt. Major Mulcahy notifies Shaw that the
soldier is to be publicly whipped, to which Shaw agrees. Forbes is
reprimanded for challenging the Colonel's authority in front of everyone
before Mulcahy proceeds to conduct the punishment. (0:48:49) Shaw
seeks out Mr. Rawlins, whom he asks to speak with from time to time about
the men and their overall sentiment. Rawlins divulges to Shaw that
the men need shoes, and that Trip wasn't deserting but had been out looking
for a pair of much needed shoes.
The next day Colonel
Shaw goes to the Quartermaster's office to bully 600 shoes and 1200 socks
from Kendric, who yields as Shaw overpowers the man's rank and makes a
mess of his station. (0:52:00) Shortly after, Rawlins is distributing
shoes and socks to the men of the 54th. (0:52:45) Shaw personally
checks up on Trip's medical progress.
Shaw receives a letter
from the War Department informing him that his men will receive less than
the $13 per month salary of a Union soldier because they are a colored
regiment. He instructs Forbes to protest the terms later on, and
then he informs the troops of their lower pay, who fallout to receive their
checks until a spontaneous demonstration begins, with men complaining and
tearing up their wage slips. Shaw discharges his pistol to get their
attention and joins their opposition, declaring that if they will take
no pay then their officers will not either. Uniforms are subsequently
distributed during the gathering.
The 54th Massachusetts
Regiment marches through the streets of Boston during a patriotic parade.
The musical score replaces the sounds of the fife and drum as separate
camera shots focus on Thomas, Jupiter, Rawlins, Trip, and Shaw in uniform
and marching. The scene powerfully reveals how proud they are of
their unit's progress.
New Sgt. Major
are seen from riverboats transporting the 54th from Boston to the southern
front. On the boat, a journalist on special assignment from Harper's
Weekly periodical introduces himself and his magazine's intent to inform
one million readers of any action the unit sees. Then Major Forbes
calls attention to the unit as he awards the rank of Sergeant Major to
John Rawlins. The men march into Beaufort, South Carolina, as recently
freed black children run along the regiment in awe.
The unit continues
marching past a scattered and unorganized contraband unit, recently formed
from ex-slaves. Two of them talk to Searles, who is unable to understand
their dialect, and must ask Rawlins for translation. (1:02:25) Shaw
attends a party in which he converses with General Harker, his higher up,
who gives Shaw a mixed feeling on having the black unit around. The
colonel is then introduced to a number of abolitionists (who came to South
Carolina to instruct the newly freed blacks) and his brigade's commander,
Col. Montgomery, who proceeds to invite Shaw to accompany him on a mission
to the Georgia coast the next morning. Shaw accepts and informs Thomas
to pass along the word that they'll be going into action.
The 54th Regiment
marches in formation while the contraband unit disorderly advances toward
the Georgian town of Darien while the commanders talk on horseback of their
origins. Montgomery concedes his racist background to Shaw, telling
him of his upbringing in Kentucky where his family once owned slaves.
Montgomery commands his troops to pillage the town and instructs Shaw to
order his troops to do the same. The contraband ensues to fire upon
the civilians, whom Montgomery calls secces' that must be swept away by
the hand of God like the Jews of old. Shaw refuses to obey until
Montgomery threatens to court marshall the colonel. Shaw's first
squad, second platoon, falls out to set torches and fires the town.
Another letter of
Shaw's is narrated, this one asking his father for help. The 54th
Regiment is unhappily consigned to manual labor. Col. Shaw requests
that his father write directly to President Lincoln, just as he has written
to Governor Andrew requesting that the 54th be given an opportunity to
prove itself. A white Union regiment passes through the camp and
heated derogatory racial words are exchanged. Rawlins intervenes
to calm the situation until he is insulted himself and disobeyed by a lower
ranking soldier. The confrontation is finally broken up when Forbes
arrives and threatens to write up the white soldier drawing the most attention.
Thomas and Trip
Trip antagonizes Thomas to the point where they are about to brawl.
Rawlins holds Trip back, but Trip redirects his anger toward his newly
promoted fellow soldier. Rawlins backhands Trip in order to shut
up him while he gives a passionate speech putting Trip well in his place.
(1:14:46) Shaw and Forbes meet directly with General Harker in his
office to press him for a combat command transfer. Harker refuses
until Col. Shaw threatens to report him to the War Department for smuggling
and other depredations.
The 54th Regiment rushes to mobilize a firing line. They initially
repel a Cavalry unit, but the bulk of the Rebel company appears through
the smoke and fog. In the following battle, the 54th fares well but
not without casualties. Thomas, in a state of confusion from the
charge, is shot in the shoulder but remains in battle long enough
to save Trip's life. After the rebel forces retreat, the 54th is
Shaw while surveying the battlefield for his unit's losses,
comes across Thomas who is laying down and being treated for his gunshot
wound. Pvt. Searles makes Shaw promise him that he will not send
him back to Boston.
A Harper's Weekly reporter updates Shaw on the Union's most
recent victories. Shaw reports 42 casualties at James Island to him,
but the journalist doesn't think such news could make his paper.
(1:25:03) Shaw confronts Pvt. Trip at a pond, where he asks him to
bear the regimental colors, considered a great honor. Trip refuses
to do so, however, claiming that he is not fighting this war for Shaw and
that the black soldiers have no real chance of winning anything in the
Requesting the honor
General Strong announces Headquarters' battle plan to the commanding
officers alongside the beach from which they will begin their attack.
He details Fort Wagner's defensive capabilities and warns their approach
will limit an assault to one regiment which could sustain extreme casualties.
Shaw steps forward to volunteer the 54th despite their exhaustion.
(1:29:30) Shaw and Forbes quietly sip drinks in their tent and contemplate.
(1:30:15) The night prior to the attack, the 54th soldiers have encircled
a fire. They sing and pray for their cause and their safety, with
emotional speeches from Sharts, Rawlins, and Trip.
"We are ready."
In the early morning, Shaw is dressed by a black assistant. The
54th is called to attention and marches its way through the cheers and
motivational shouts of other white regiments on their way to the beach
Before assembling his men for their perilous attack, Col. Shaw gives
his personal letters for home to the Harper’s Weekly reporter. “If
I should fall, remember what you see here,” he tells the
journalist. Rawlins tells their drummer boy to move along with
the other drummers to the rear of the unit. Shaw looks out over the
ocean, to the battery, and then lets his horse run free. The colonel
steps his way through the applause and hat tossing of his men. In
his final address to the regiment, Shaw asks who will take the flag if
the bearer falls. Thomas volunteers, saying, "I will."
March to glory
The soldiers fix their bayonets and begins marching faster and faster
toward Battery Wagner ahead.
The regiment begins to sprint, and the men attempt to hunker down,
take cover, and avoid the oncoming bullets and mortars.
As the sun sets, the soldiers keep pushing forward. (1:46:12)
Now nightfall, the unit regroups behind sand dunes with flares overhead.
Shaw rallies his officers to spread the word to move forward on his command. (1:46:56)
The 54th begins its second charge.
The soldiers cross a moat before reaching the parapets. Shaw,
Forbes, Rawlins, Sharts, Searles, and Trip take cover one last time at
the bottom of the dune underneath the fort. Shaw makes a desperate
attempt toward the wall but is shot down in front of his entire regiment. Trip
grabs the flag and screams for the rest of the men to join him but is shot
dead just moments later. The 54th takes their lead, crests the dunes,
and breaches the fort walls only to find a deluge of reinforcements awaiting
Early in the morning, a calm tide rolls in from the Atlantic. The
dead soldiers scatter the beach dunes. The
victorious Rebels raise their Confederate flag at the fort. The
54th's dead have been arranged in order, and their shoes taken. Col.
Shaw’s body is thrown into a mass grave with the rest of his regiment's
dead. Pvt. Trip's body slides down the same burial hole, landing
on top of his commanding officer. (1:54:48) A final scene reads:
The 54th Massachusetts lost over half its number on the assault on Ft.
Wagner. The supporting white brigades also suffered heavily before
withdrawing. The fort was never taken. As word of their bravery
spread, Congress at last authorized the raising of black troops throughout
the Union. Over 180,000 volunteered. President Lincoln credited
these men of color with helping turn the tide of the war.
Copyright (c) 2003, Todd Scurci and Denny Boyle, Undergraduates at
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