This 1989 movie is, in my opinion, the best Civil War picture ever made. The story is largely seen through the eyes of Robert Gould Shaw, the young commanding officer of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. The Fifty-fourth was the first black regular army regiment in the Civil War.

Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston on October 10, 1837. He died in action during the assault on Confederate Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863. He was born into a wealthy Boston family to abolitionist parents. The Shaws associated with such people as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe and famed orator Frederick Douglass who helped form the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts. His sons Lewis and Charles joined the regiment.

Matthew Broderick plays Shaw and while there has been some criticism of his performance, I think it is the best thing he’s ever done and he did it well. Cary Elwes plays his second in command, Major Cabot Forbes. The best performances, however, are turned in by Denzel Washington who plays Trip and Morgan Freeman who plays Sergeant Major John Rawlins. Washington won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the embittered runaway slave. Andre Braugher of Homicide fame is excellent as the educated Thomas Searles.

The story begins with Shaw serving as a Captain with the Second Massachusetts Infantry at the Battle of Antietam where he is wounded. After accepting his appointment as colonel of the Fifty-fourth (his decision wasn’t as cut and dried as the movie makes out) the story moves more toward the blacks who joined the regiment and the formation and training of the regiment itself.

We see the conflicts between Washington’s character Trip and the other members of the regiment, especially Thomas Searles. Freeman’s character Rawlins is, in contrast, a calm, stabilizing force in the regiment.

The black troops are undisciplined so Shaw brought in a tough Irish sergeant major named Mulcahy (John Finn) to help toughen them up. In the movie, he bears a strong resemblance to the drill instructors we are used to seeing today. He is especially hard on Thomas Searles. He said to Searles upon first noticing him, “Oh, look at this. Bonnie Prince Charlie. Are you a member of Congress or something? Or are you the bloody Prince of Africa?” After Mulcahy gets through, the regiment is as disciplined as any in the army.

At first, members of the Fifty-fourth are used for nothing more than manual labor until Shaw convinces his commander through the use of blackmail that they should be transferred to a combat command. When they finally are transferred, they are involved in their first real battle at James Island, South Carolina on July 16, 1863 to be followed by the attack on Fort Wagner two days later.

In May of 1900, Sergeant William H. Carney became the first black to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic actions he’d performed while a member of Company C of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment during the assault on Fort Wagner.


  • Matthew Broderick – Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
  • Denzel Washington – Trip
  • Cary Elwes – Major Cabot Forbes
  • Morgan Freeman – Sergeant Major John Rawlins
  • Jihmi Kennedy – Jupiter Sharts
  • Andre Braugher – Thomas Searles
  • John Finn – Sergeant Major Mulcahy
  • Donovan Leitch – Charles Fessenden Morse
  • John David Cullum – Henry Sturgis Russell
  • Alan North – Governor John Albion Andrew
  • Bob Gunton – General Harker
  • Cliff De Young – Colonel James M. Montgomery
  • Christian Baskous – Edward L. Pierce
  • RonReaco Lee – Mute Drummer Boy
  • Jay O. Sanders – General George Crockett Strong