The entertainment industry has grown exponentially in the past century and is in every facet of life now, including historical topics. Many television shows and movies are historically based and try to recreate a historical event or time period for the viewer to emerge in. As a historical scholar, I have begun to question the accuracy of these portrayals. As I’m sure many other historical scholars have discovered, no entertainment based historical movie or show is completely accurate. No matter what, every historical publication will have its imperfections.
The movie, although a multiple prize winning film, is full of historical inaccuracies.The main problem that most historians have with the film is that the 54th Massachusetts regiment is portrayed to contain many fugitive slaves that escaped the South and joined the fight to help free other slaves. This was simply the not the case. Every African American soldier of the 54th Massachusetts was actually a freedman. This completely dissolves the theme for the character that Denzel Washington plays. One major thing that the movie does seem to present accurately is the initial distrust of an all-black regiment to the North. Although the North fought to end slavery, many Northerners still considered African Americans inferior and did not trust them to fight the war. In the movie, a reporter asked Col. Shaw (Matthew Broaderick) “Will they fight? A million readers want to know.” Shaw then replied “A million and one.” This is a very accurate symbol of the North’s fear that African Americans were servile and wouldn’t have the courage to fight. Although many of the themes throughout the film seem to follow historical evidence, the directors and writers also added in effects and inaccuracies to draw in the audience and make the story seem more progressive. Further exploration of the movie reveals more minor inaccuracies such as the attack on Ft. Wagner being from the south rather than from the north, Col. Robert Gould Shaw was the only real person, and the fact that Shaw accepted the command of the 54th as soon as it was offered. Beyond those infractions, many scholars have agreed that the dialect and costumes used in the film are at least mostly accurate.
To read more from the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, go to http://54th-mass.org/tag/54th-massachusetts/ or you can watch the movie at http://viooz.ac/movies/1571-glory-1989.html.
Hell On Wheels
AMC has now entered its fourth season of the critically claimed TV series “Hell on Wheels” which follows westward expansion with the Union Pacific Railroad following the Civil War. Protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is an ex-confederate soldier that is immediately put in charge of a “cut” of African Americans working for the railroad (most are portrayed as ex slaves). The show, like most in our entertainment industry today, lands with a foot in both camps of being accurate or inaccurate. Some prevalent themes, such as a bitterness and willingness to fight of ex-confederates is completely accurate for the time period, but other themes such as Thomas “Doc” Durant (chairman of the railroad) getting along with African Americans simply would not have happened in that time period. The title of the show refers to the name of the traveling town to which all the characters call home. As the railroad moved west, the town would move with it. Even with the completely false plot of vengeance that drives Hell on Wheels, I still believe it can give an educational insight to what life was like in the reconstruction period of the US. Hardships such as cholera, disease, Indian attacks, depression, wildlife, winter, rain storms, and social prejudices are all well-represented. In the latest installments of the show, the thread of carpet-baggers taking advantage of the horrible situation is also introduced.
Why it all matters
Although I personally enjoy both of the historical titles mentioned, I do long for a more accurate display of the Civil War and history in general. As a historian, I often pay more attention to the mistakes and inaccuracies than I do the plot. More importantly, many Hollywood portrayals of history are teaching a false history. Most Americans do not study history on a regular basis, or do their research on a topic before or after watching a movie. I do not think directors and writers should be held responsible or liable for fibbing a few facts to sell to the masses, but rather the viewers should be aware that not every fact in movies and shows are accurate. I would consider this more of a call for society to become more scholarly and do research rather than rely on entertainment for a historical basis of knowledge. On the opposite side, I believe movies and shows like these can give viewers an idea of what it physically looked like to live in or after the civil war and some problems that one might encounter.
1. Glory won at least 14 awards and was nominated for many more.
2. Hitorical Society of Massachusetts, “54th Regiment!” masshist.org. http://www.masshist.org/online/54thregiment/essay.php?entry_id=528. September 17, 2014.
3. Pohanka, Brian C. Civil War Trust, “Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.” civilwar.org. America’s Civil War Magazine. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/batterywagner/battery-wagner-history-articles/fortwagnerpohanka.html September 17, 2014.
4. Hickman, Kennedy. “Civil War: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” militaryhistory.about.com. http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/1800sarmybiographies/p/rgshaw.htm. September 17, 2014.
5. Civil war Trust, “Robert Gould Shaw.” civilwar.org. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/robert-gould-shaw.html. September 17, 2014
6. Randall, J.G. and David Herbert Daniel. The Civil War and Reconstruction, “The Post Civil War South.” http://www.civilwarhome.com/postwarsouth.html. September 18, 2014
7. American Experience: 25 Years, “Hell on Wheels.” pbs.org. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-hell/. September 18, 2014