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Black Soldiers in the Civil War

"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on Earth that can deny he has earned the right to citizenship."
Frederick Douglas    

Black men in the North rushed to enlist in the Union Army after the attack on Fort Sumter but were turned away because of a 1792 law barring Negroes from Army service, although there had been black soldiers in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Things changed as the Union found it hard to recruit enough whites to replace the heavy losses from combat and disease. By the end of the war, more than 179,000 black men were in Army uniforms (10% of total manpower), and another 19,000 were serving in the U. S. Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died during the war, three-fourths of them from infection and disease. (That ratio was about the same for white Civil War soldiers.) The Medal of Honor, America's highest award for valor in combat, had been presented to sixteen black soldiers.


    An excellent presentation of Civil War history, dramatically compelling, yet reasonably close to the reality of the events depicted. Matthew Broderick plays Robert Shaw, a New England abolitionist from a prominent family, who is commisioned in the Union army and assigned to organize and lead an all-black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th. Shaw considers himself to have a liberal attitude toward black people but discovers he has much to learn as his troops are trained and equipped. He is helped in developing some understanding of his men by an older black trooper (Morgan Freeman). Denzel Washington is superb as a man with mixed emotions, highly suspicious of all whites and all white institutions. The film is partly based on letters written by Shaw to his family during the war. Leading the July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, the 54th Massachusetts lost two thirds of its officers, including Colonel Shaw, and half of its troops. Oscars were awarded to Denzel Washington (Supporting Actor) and for Cinematography and Sound.


1989, Directed by Edward Zwick

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