Natchez history shown through film
On July 16, 1863, just three days after he led the occupation of Natchez, General Thomas E.G. Ransom requested from General Grant clarification as to the policy regarding freedmen as thousands of former slaves were flowing into Natchez seeking refuge and assistance from the Federal army. “I cannot take care of them,” Ransom lamented. “What shall I do with them? They are all anxious to go; they do not know where or what for.”
Ransom was particularly concerned about the women and children, the poor and infirmed who were eventually quartered in filthy contraband camps. For many of the able-bodied men, however, there was another option — enlistment in one of the newly formed regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops. Federal forces quickly filled the ranks of what would become the 58th, 70th and 71st Infantry Regiments. Col. Bernard G. Farrar of the 30th Missouri personally recruited troops for the Second Mississippi Heavy Artillery — African Descent (later the Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery).
In addition to assisting in the construction of Fort McPherson, these men distinguished themselves on the field of battle. Farrar particularly noted their courage, stamina and fortitude in the August 1864 raid on Gillespie’s Plantation in Louisiana. Of the Natchez regiments, Lt. Col. James Proudfit echoed Farrrar’s sentiment, “Good conduct and bravery extorts respect and the prejudice against color is breaking square down.”
The valor of another African-American regiment is depicted in the award-winning 1989 film based on the screenplay “Glory,” the American war drama starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. Broderick portrays Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who is given command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment. Washington, in his academy award-winning role, plays Trip, an escaped slave, while freeman portrays Ralwins, a gravedigger who had discovered the unconscious Shaw on an earlier field of battle.
Upon realizing that his regiment is to be used solely for manual labor, Shaw maneuvers to have his troops deployed for battle. All three men would perish as Shaw unsuccessfully led his troops against Rebel forces at Fort Wagner, S.C. on July 18, 1863, just five days after the occupation of Natchez. News of the regiment’s courage at Fort Wagner spurred the recruitment of African Americans and by the end of the war, 180,000 soldiers were serving in regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops. Abraham Lincoln considered the service of these regiments as instrumental in the ultimate Federal victory.
The Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration will present the movie as part of its popular film series, “Hollywood Comes to Natchez,” at 4 p.m., Saturday at the Natchez Visitor’s Center. At 3 p.m., historian Jim Wiggins will lead a discussion about the film and its relevance to events in the Natchez district. While not filmed in Natchez, the movie beautifully portrays the trials and tribulations, the hardships and barriers, the racism and prejudices encountered by all African-American troops as they fought to secure freedom for themselves and their families.
Jefferson Mansell is a historian at the Natchez National Historical Park.