Yesterday, July 18th, was the 156th anniversary of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, where the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) made its spectacular but tragic charge and cemented its place in history. The story of the 54th is kinda-sorta told in the movie Glory, which came out thirty years ago and is still one of my favorite movies of all time.
Imagine, if you will, a little boy whose family was from Massachusetts, who read a book about the Civil War and learned about a brave unit, also from Massachusetts, that suffered some 44% casualties in its first major battle. The accompanying artwork was something that has stayed in my memory ever since.
So you can imagine my excitement when they actually made a movie about the 54th. The movie is far from perfect, both from a historian’s perspective and from a moviemaker’s perspective, but still, it is just a superb film and I love it. And the fact that they show how Colonel Shaw and his men were buried just makes the ending so powerful. The Confederates reported that they buried some 800 dead bodies in front of Fort Wagner that day, July 19th, 1863. They had intended to disrespect Colonel Shaw by burying him with his soldiers. But his parents, when asked if they wanted to try to recover his body, said that they could imagine no better place for him to be buried than with the men of his regiment.
It was on July 12th, 1862 that “A Resolution to provide for the Presentation of “Medals of Honor” to the Enlisted Men of the Army and Volunteer Forces who have distinguished, or may distinguish, themselves in Battle during the present Rebellion” was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, summer is really here, and today the temperature here in Winthrop by the Sea has reached 93 degrees, with a heat index of 100. So naturally, this is when our air conditioner decides to partially break down. We have AC in the basement (where it is least needed) and partially on the first floor, but it basically isn’t working at all on the second floor and so the temperature in our bedroom hit 85 degrees in the shade. We are temporarily sleeping in the basement on the sleeper sofa until the HVAC guys can come on Monday.
The only one of us who seems totally unaffected is Violet. She doesn’t seem to mind the heat at all. Scratch, on the other hand, has camped out in the basement with us and the dogs.
One of the bloodiest battles of the Revolution was fought on the Field of Logan (as it used to be called) in July 1775 between Massachusetts militia and two British army regiments: The Royal Regiment of Foot, Light or ROFL Regiment; and the Western Tottenham Regiment of Foot, or WTF Regiment. They were supported by a battery of artillery known as the Twickenham and Sussex Artillery, or the TSA.
When the men of the 11th Massachusetts awoke on July 2nd, they saw that the Confederates had occupied parts of the Emmitsburg Road, which the regiment and the rest of their division had used to march to the battlefield. That morning was cloudy and threatened rain, but by noon the clouds had all disappeared. At 3 PM that afternoon the entire Third Corps moved forward from its position on Cemetery Ridge to occupy the slightly higher ground in front of them. The Second Division, under General Andrew A. Humphreys, was on the right, lined up along the Emmitsburg Road. This included the 11th Massachusetts, which found itself on the farm belonging to an older couple named Peter and Susan Rogers. The single-story log house and the barn provided some concealment, at least from the sun, for some of the men of the 11th Massachusetts. The Rogers’ granddaughter, a young woman named Josephine Miller, insisted on staying so she could bake bread for the Union troops, as well as serve them cold water and occasionally sell them a chicken.
For the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, the pursuit of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during its invasion of the North began on June 11th, 1863. The regiment had been making plans to celebrate the anniversary of its muster into Federal service on June 13th. Early in the afternoon a large group of the 11th’s officers were playing a baseball game against the officers of the 26th Pennsylvania, one of the other regiments in the brigade, when marching orders were received. By 1:30 the regiment was assembled with knapsacks and began marching. The weather was already brutally hot.
June 25th is one of those days that is permanently in my memory because of a historical event. Today, it is the 143rd anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the battle during the Great Sioux War of 1876 in which Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under his command were wiped out by a much larger force of Native Americans. Since my teenage years, my view of the battle has been largely shaped by a (somewhat) obscure book called Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell.
It is largely because of Libbie Custer that her husband’s reputation and his memory in general did not suffer as much, at least for the first century or so after his death. And frankly, it probably should have suffered. Custer was brash, egotistical, vain, stubborn, and reckless with the lives of those who he led. There is a reason he graduated dead last in his West Point class of 1861. He was a controversial figure while he was alive, much less afterward. It is largely because of Libby Custer that the view of Custer as a tragic hero perpetuated for so long (see the movie They Died With Their Boots On, with Custer portrayed by Errol Flynn).
But what actually happened at Little Bighorn is much more complex than what was portrayed in popular culture for so long. And Son of the Morning Star (the book AND the movie) does a much better job than anything before or since in portraying the battle and what happened. That’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth. Here’s a clip of the opening titles and scene, where the column under General Alfred Terry (played by Terry O’Quinn!) arrives on the battlefield to see they have missed the fight. Note also Captain Frederick Benteen played by David Strathairn. Also note that the story is largely narrated by the two women.
I don’t know if this film will ever find its way to DVD, much less Blu-Ray, but it should.