The 54th Massachusetts Voluntary (Colored) Infantry Regiment was probably the finest African American unit in the Union army, and Glory certainly presents them in their grandest historic light during the storming of Fort Wagner (S.C.) in July 1863. The 54th (and its commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw) must have known that their attack was a forlorn one, but the men followed their leader against the strongly entrenched Confederates within the fortress. The film concentrates on the men--black and white--who make up the regiment, and they are shown in a determined, heroic light. Many of the main characters die in the attack on Fort Wagner, however, and the film maintains a realistic view about the human endurance and willpower exhibited by the men of the 54th. Few Union Negro units had seen much important action during the war, usually serving in non-combative roles and garrison duty; so, the attack on Fort Wagner, though bloody and ultimately unsuccessful, showed the 54th's fellow white comrades and the Northern public that black units could be trusted in combat. The 54th's attack also infuriated the Confederates, who buried the Union dead in a mass grave along with the body of Shaw, but they must have also realized that these particular black soldiers were capable men, willing to fight and die when called upon.
The 54th, under Shaw's replacement, Colonel Edward Hallowell, again made a name for itself when the regiment stood off the victorious Confederates after the disastrous Battle of Olustee (Florida) in 1864. The 54th, acting in reserve, fought a rear guard action against the Confederates after several other Federal units--black and white--had retired in disorder against the Florida troops. Although the Confederates pursued the defeated Federals, they were not able to break the 54th's lines, and the small Union army made it safely back to Jacksonville. The 54th maintained its reputation as a fighting long after Shaw's death--a fact that would have made Shaw proud.
Historians have long recognized that African-Americans played an important role in fighting the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln himself credited black troops, eligible to fight after the Emancipation Proclamation, with turning the tide of the conflict. By depicting the heroism of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, particularly in the assault on Fort Wagner, where many of the unit's men were killed or wounded, Glory helped place the contributions of black soldiers in the national consciousness. Though its depiction of the soldiers in the regiment has been contested, with historians noting that most of the members of the real 54th were not former slaves, but free blacks, it remains an important film in revising the place of the Civil War in the American popular consciousness.