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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 based on disagreements over the slavery but not dedicated to the ending of the institution. Union failures on the battlefield, decreasing white enlistments, growing disillusionment with the war, along with black fugitive flight to Union lines and insistent free black political activities finally bring President Abraham Lincoln to the conclusion that ending slavery is a necessary war measure needed to weaken the South and add much needed manpower to the Union war effort.

The film, directed by Steven Ives and Ben Loeterman, 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, 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, causing serious hardship for the men's families.

Though promising good coverage of the 54th Massachusetts, the majority of the film's narrative covers political side issues. The majority of the photographs used throughout this film are men in uniform or in battle situations; the actual narrative includes little coverage of battlefield experiences. The 54th's first action on the battlefield on St. James Island or the more famous vanguard position in the attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, S.C. both 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 thematic 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 seem to be happening at the same time so that, although the facts are accurate, the final impressions are misleading. From a historical standpoint, this film could be a useful summary of the abolition movement, slavery, complex Civil War politics that do not include blacks as the center of war time attention, and the attempts of abolitionists and free blacks to bring it to center stage, but students would need a good grounding in the progression of events if they are not to become confused in viewing the film.

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 wartime conditions, modern film of historic buildings and locations, and shots of newspaper clippings are skillfully woven together using various musical renditions of songs popular among black soldiers during the Civil War, letters written home by soldiers narrated by modern actors, oral histories told by descendants, and historical assessments by reputable historians like James Horton and Barbara Fields. The visual images are skillfully edited so that the narrative flows well.

Nancy L. Zens

Central Oregon Community College
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Author:Zens, Nancy L.
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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