During the American Civil War, Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is wounded at the Battle of Antietam. As a result of his injuries, he returns to Boston on leave to spend time with his family and is introduced to Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques), a former slave turned abolitionist.
After a respite, Shaw is commissioned to command one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army: the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (MVI). He asks his friend, Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), to serve alongside him at his right hand.
Their first volunteer is a freeman named Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher). Other recruits sign up, including the steady and responsible Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), an impudent runaway slave named Silas Trip (Denzel Washington), freeman Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy), and a mute young drummer boy (RonReaco Lee).
The black soldiers undergo training at a camp in Reading, Massachusetts, under the tutelage of Sergeant-Major Mulcahy (John Finn), a tough, no-nonsense Irishman.
After Trip supposedly deserts and is captured, Shaw orders him flogged as an example to the troops, but Trip’s exposed back reveals the scars of many previous whippings as a slave, a sight that troubles Shaw, who is, after
all, an ardent abolitionist.
Shaw is further chagrined to learn from Rawlins that Trip had left camp to find shoes to replace his worn-out ones.
Shaw further discovers that all of his men are being deprived of needed supplies by a racist quartermaster (Richard Riehle), whom he angrily confronts.
Shaw also supports his men in a dispute over pay (white soldiers are paid $13 a month, but black soldiers are paid only $10). When Trip urges his comrades to go without pay in protest, Shaw follows suit and earns the respect of his men.
Because black soldiers are not allowed to rank as officers, Rawlins is promoted to sergeant-major: the highest rank for an enlisted man.
After the 54th is trained, the unit is put under General Charles Garrison Harker (Bob Gunton). En route to joining the war in South Carolina, Harker’s second-in-command, Colonel James Montgomery (Cliff De Young), orders the regiment to sack and burn a town in Georgia. Shaw does not wish to follow the command but acquiesces when his leadership role is threatened. The town of Darien, Georgia, is subsequently destroyed.
Shaw pushes for his men to be allowed to join their fellow Union soldiers in battle (since being activated, they have been relegated to manual labour) and eventually succeeds.
The unit fares well in its first bout of active combat on James Island, South Carolina. Thomas is injured while saving Trip’s life and consequently earns his respect. Soon after that, Brigadier-General George Crockett Strong (Jay O. Sanders) informs Shaw and his other officers of a major campaign to secure Charleston Harbor – a plan that will necessitate the capture of nearby Fort Wagner on Morris Island, which is considered impregnable.
The only landward approach between salt marsh and sea is a narrow defile provided by the beach, and any regiment spearheading the attack is sure to suffer extreme casualties. Shaw volunteers the 54th for that grim role.
En route to the battlefield, the 54th is encouraged and cheered on by their fellow Union soldiers.
The 54th forges ahead and suffers major casualties from enemy fire, and as night falls, elements of the regiment cross the fort’s water-filled moat under heavy fire. Colonel Shaw is killed as he leads an assault on the fort’s parapets.
Trip carries the flag himself despite several bullet wounds and encourages his unit to press on, struggling to hold up the flag until his last breath.
Forbes leads the unit and successfully breaches the fort’s defences, but the men are quickly outnumbered and overwhelmed. Charlie Morse is killed and Thomas is wounded.
Forbes, Rawlins, Thomas, Jupiter, and the two colour sergeants are killed as the battle ends. The next morning, the beach is riddled with the bodies of slain Union troops and the corpses are buried in a mass grave.
The closing on-screen text reads:
“The 54th Massachusetts lost over half its number in the assault on Fort Wagner. The supporting white brigades also suffered heavily before withdrawing. The fort was never taken. As word of their bravery spread, Congress at last authorised the raising of black troops throughout the union. Over 180,000 volunteered. President Lincoln credited these men with helping to turn the tide of the war.”
Director Edward Zwick went to great lengths to ensure authenticity, especially in the battle scenes. Historian Shelby Foote combed the screenplay for anachronisms, and the cast included more than 1,500 Civil War re-enactors who appeared free of charge.
Col. Robert Gould Shaw
Maj. Cabot Forbes
Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins
Pvt. Jupiter Sharts
Cpl. Thomas Searles
Sgt. Maj. Mulcahy
Capt. Charles Fessenden Morse
Henry Sturgis Russell
John David Cullum
Gov. John Albion Andrew
Gen. Charles Garrison Harker
Col. James M. Montgomery
Cliff De Young
Edward L. Pierce
Gen. George Crockett Strong
Jay O. Sanders
Francis George Shaw
Peter Michael Goetz
Dr William B. Rogers
Dr Charles G. Thorpe
Raymond Godshall Jr.