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.
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.
Disclaimer: Geoff loathes this movie and book upon which it is based. That’s not why I am posting it here. That’s just a bonus. (Love you, sweetie.)
The scene above is important for one really major reason. For all of their ups and downs and crazy drama, Rhett no longer cares for Scarlett. At all. He doesn’t love her, he doesn’t hate her, he just doesn’t care.
This is probably where I should warn you that this post is about unpleasant things. Trauma, PTSD, abuse – a lot of stuff. Turn back here should you need to. Likewise, for a variety of reasons, what I’m going to write may be a bit opaque with oblique references. This is necessary. I apologize for the confusion.
Around the same time our “Stable Genius” leader was tweeting about the size of his “nuclear button” like he was a high school freshman, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that they are going to hold a session on January 16th about teaching federal, state, and local first responders how to “prepare for a nuclear detonation”. Both Guam and Hawaii have been more focused on nuclear threats in recent weeks and months, as both places are likely within the range of ballistic missiles from North Korea.
As a general rule, I am not a fan of the term “history buff”. Whenever I see someone referred to as a “history buff”, I tend to become a little irritated. In my mind, history buffs collect the Civil War Chess Set and Stonewall Jackson beer steins. Historians do research and then usually present their findings in one way or another. Just because you read history doesn’t mean you are a historian, just as the fact you can speak English does not mean you could be an English teacher, you know?
Today’s date is a day on which so many things happened, I doubt I can even remember them all.
Of course, it is the day that in 1861 the Civil War started with an artillery bombardment of the Union garrison in Fort Sumter, in the middle of Charleston Harbor. That’s a gimme for a Civil War historian like me.