Based on the letters of Colonel Robert G. Shaw. Shaw was an officer in the Federal Army during the American Civil War who volunteered to lead the first company of black soldiers. Shaw was forced to deal with the prejudices of both the enemy (who had orders to kill commanding officers of blacks), and of his own fellow officers. 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.
Don’t waste your time!
Order your assignment!
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.