Undying Glory Analysis
This account of events surrounding the Massachusetts 54th regiment offers readers an opportunity to explore the moral deliberations of both black and white participants. As Cox explores the backgrounds and motivations of the persons involved, he brings them to life through their own words, excerpted from letters, diaries, journals, essays, and speeches. He also provides details within the narrative that help the reader visualize the experiences of the soldiers and grasp the significance of events. For example, he describes the role of the flag bearer in such a way that the reader understands the importance of the flag as a military marker and the danger that attends the flag bearer in battle.
Cox also observes details of historical location, noting that the newly formed regiment marches over the death site of Crispus Attucks on its way to board a ship in Boston harbor and that the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow comments on having seen the new regiment in his diary. He connects events with other historical figures, observing that Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, treats the wounded at Fort Wagner and that the 54th regiment serves alongside the son of John Quincy Adams, who leads an all-black cavalry unit.
Although Cox shows obvious admiration for the achievements of the 54th regiment, his credentials as a journalist are evident. He neither vilifies nor glorifies the participants in these events, but reveals the doubts and concerns that each has about the decisions that must be made and leaves the evaluation of these choices to the reader. For example, Cox notes that Lincoln was slow in his decisions regarding black participation in the war and their fair treatment as soldiers, but he also suggests reasons that Lincoln might have delayed these decisions. This balance in reporting is also evident in his descriptions of the antiblack riots in New York, where white people rescue, hide, and comfort victims of white mob violence.
Cox puts a human face on statistics, sharing the touching records of those who found a dead boy in a Confederate uniform, “almost a child, with soft skin and long fair hair,” whom they buried with great care. In other notes, he ties the regiment’s casualties to specific persons, such as “Corporal Henry Dennis, a laborer from Ithaca, New York, who drowned after being forced into the river,” or “Private Caldwell, Sojourner Truth’s grandson,” who “was one of the missing.” Cox quotes from the writings of Barton, who treated many of the 54th regiment’s wounded and would later found the American Red Cross. He also notes that Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is buried in a mass grave with his troops, a resting place that his father decides not to change when the fort is occupied by Union troops later in the year, believing where Shaw fell with his men to be an appropriate grave.
The historically informed reader will find the research sound and the treatment of subjects and events fair and balanced. Readers with extensive background knowledge of the Civil War will realize that much of the suffering endured by black soldiers was also common to white soldiers, who died more often from disease than from bullets, could be shot for desertion without a hearing, and were often starved, poorly clothed, horribly abused in prison, and subjected to horrors of war past describing. What is important to note, however, is that black soldiers not only shared these hardships but also faced execution or return to slavery if captured and were subject to the additional injustice and indignities that arose from prejudice. That they were able to overcome these additional challenges to perform with exceptional competence and valor makes this a story worth telling.