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One Gallant Rush

by Peter Burchard

Desperate courage almost always assures historical immortality to those who embrace death for cause and comrade. There are instances, however, when our collective memory fails us, when we purposefully induce amnesia to forget troubling aspects of our past. The African-American soldiers of the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry were, like so many of their black comrades, whitewashed out of history. In the aftermath of the unit’s failed charge against Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863, the Northern press celebrated the 54th’s heroism, but the regiment’s actions gradually receded in the American conscience. By the 20th century, the image of Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands in brotherly reunion eclipsed all other remembrances of the Civil War.

The decisive contributions of black soldiers went virtually unrecognized by the general public until 1989, when the movie Glory fully restored the 54th’s place in history. This important film was loosely based on Peter Burchard’s One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw & His Brave Black Regiment, published in 1965 at the close of the Civil War Centennial. Racial themes were typically ignored during the centennial, but Burchard, to his credit, resisted the popular political and cultural currents of the day. He believed that popular historical writing could have a lasting impact if it challenged people’s treasured conceptions of the past. Burchard did so by telling a story of black soldiers fighting for their own freedom, a historical narrative that clashed with the common American belief that the war was strictly fought between white people.

Despite obvious connections be – tween his subject and current events of the 1960s, Burchard refused to turn One Gallant Rush into a polemic for the Civil Rights movement. He focused instead on the regiment’s experiences, from its bleak training days at Readville, Mass., in early 1862 to its catastrophic charge against Wagner. But he didn’t want this book to be simply a unit history; it reads like a biography of the regiment’s commander, Shaw. Burchard devotes attention to Shaw’s youth and education as well as his military experiences. We see a sophisticated, sensitive young man who possessed deep antislavery feelings but feared that emancipation might unhinge the Union war effort by unleashing a savage form of retaliatory warfare. Shaw eventually saw his command as a chance to unite his moderate political opinions against slavery with his commitment to black liberty.

Unfortunately we do not hear the voices of the black men in One Gallant Rush. Bur chard pays little attention to the rank and file—if he had, he could have produced a history that showed the intimate connections between white and black men struggling to reconcile the principles of human freedom with the prejudices, violence and harsh discipline that defined life in the Union Army.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here