From the set of "Glory" to the Smithsonian collections

Watching this year's Academy Award-winning movie 12 Years a Slave compelled me to think about my internship research on objects in the entertainment collection from the 1989 movie Glory. This spring, I had the opportunity to learn more about the making of Glory by talking to Stanley Slater, one of the reenactors involved in the making of the film. I've always loved history, the chance to learn about other people's lives, and speaking with Slater gave me the opportunity to see how taking part in the retelling of this story impacted his life.

Glory was the first major motion picture to focus on African American soldiers in the Civil War and was based in part on the book Lay This Laurel about Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial, unveiled on Boston Common in Boston, Massachusetts in 1897. Saint-Gaudens later created another version of the Shaw Memorial which was displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial
Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial

The Shaw Memorial depicts Colonel Robert Shaw with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first African American Union regiment organized in the North during the Civil War. The 54th received much publicity in the North due to their display of courage and fortitude at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

While Glory featured three battle scenes, the movie's climax was a reenactment of the famous battle at Fort Wagner.

Print of the battle at Fort Wagner
Print of the battle at Fort Wagner

The movie stars Matthew Broderick as Colonel Shaw, Denzel Washington as Private Trip, and Morgan Freeman as Sergeant Major John Rawlins. Though Shaw is a historical figure, Trip and Rawlins as well as many other characters in the movie are not based on specific men. Rather, they are meant to be representative of the many different types of men who joined the regiment.

Uniforms from "Glory" that are now part of the museum's collections
Uniforms from "Glory" that are now part of the museum's collections

To portray the 54th Regiment, producers enlisted the help of reenactors. Slater, a Maryland resident, answered a newspaper ad calling for "Blacks who take pride in their heritage" to be in the film. He had always wanted to be involved in the making of a movie, so he applied and sent in his measurements to be fitted for his own Civil War uniform. Last year, he generously donated this costume to the museum along with a wonderful collection of relevant newspaper articles and documentation.

I was able to speak to Slater for a while on the phone about his experience. He traveled to Jeckyll Island, Georgia, during the spring of 1989 to participate in the filming of the battle scenes. While he was excited to be involved in the movie-making process, it was more arduous than he had anticipated.

The jacket Slater wore in the film, now in our collections
A museum intern looks at the jacket Slater wore in the film, now in our collections

In fact, the experience during filming was closer to Civil War soldier life than might have been expected. The reenactors spent their nights in tents rather than the vacation-friendly accommodations in the area. While filming, they would sit around for long periods of time between shots.

Shooting scenes, however, was not necessarily as dull—unexpected elements such as explosions were set up by the film crew to help recreate battle scenes. Slater recalled a memory of lying in the sand, thinking about the comforts that awaited him at home and realizing how starkly different his fate would be from that of the 54th Regiment.

Slater and other men involved in the film were also present for a 19 grave burial in Beaufort, South Carolina. An excavation in Folly Beach discovered the remains from graves of men of the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, another African American regiment that fought during the Civil War.

Boots worn by Morgan Freeman in the film
Boots worn by Morgan Freeman in the film

After his experience with Glory, Slater continued to be involved in reenactments for a couple of years and spoke at several elementary schools about the Civil War and the 54th Regiment. His experience struck me because it shows how his involvement in the filming of Glory forged a personal connection with, and interest in, the men of this historic regiment.

Laura Blanton served as an intern in the Division of Culture and the Arts in Spring 2014. For more on African American military service in the Civil War, don't miss the Changing America exhibition.

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