Robert Gould Shaw was a son of wealthy Boston abolitionists. At 23 he enlisted to fight in the war between the states. The movie opens by Robert reading one of many letters he writes home. He is captain of 100 Union soldiers most of whom are older than himself. He speaks of the spirit of his men and how they are enthusiastic about fighting for their country just like the men in The Revolutionary war only this time they were fighting to give blacks freedom and to live in a United country where all can speak and live freely.
The first scene takes place at Antietam Creek, Maryland Sept. 17, 1862 at The Battle of Tatum. The Union marches on foot lead by Shaw, only to be bombarded with cannon shots and gunfire. After the battle he was taken to a hospital where he heard Lincoln would be issuing an emancipation proclamation to free the slaves. At a house party afterwards, Robert sees Gov. Andrew and meets Fredrick Douglas who tells him there is to be an all black regiment of which he would like Robert to be colonel. He asks his friend Kevin to assist him in leading this group.
On November 27, 1862, black volunteer soldiers are brought to Readville Camp in Massachusetts. There we meet the main characters of the 54th Mass. Regiment. Rawlins is the future Sergeant Major and is a father figure to the group. Trip seems to have an angry personality who takes his frustration out on others. Thomas, a childhood friend of Shaws, is well educated and has not been exposed to harsh reality of the slavery scene. Shaw envisions the loss he had at Tatum when he trains these men.
These men have never experienced man to man combat before and are not prepared to handle most situations. Robert enforces all the same regulations that the other regiments go by in the Union. The pride of these black soldiers kept them from accepting the lesser salary offered and they chose for no payment as did their leader Shaw. Robert fights for his mens dignity every step of the way from demanding decent shoes to threatening the Major with exposure to the President if he doesnt allow his companies participation in the war.
The 54th is victorious in their first battle at James Island S. C. Shaws close friend Thomas is wounded but insists on continuing on with the rest of the group. General Strung brings Shaw and his men to the beach at For Wagner. There Robert volunteers his regiment to lead the pack despite the huge losses that will occur to the leading pack. The night before the attack the 54th reflects on the their lives and how much they mean to one another. The next morning Shaw and his men gather at the beach in front of Fort Wagner.
When they are ready to advance Robert dismounts from his horse to march on foot with his soldiers. They charge towards the bank in front of the fort and wait until nightfall. Finally the moment has arrived to fulfill their mission. Shaw courageously leads his men up the treacherous hillside where he is shot in front of his men. With renewed determination at the sight of their fallen leader the 54th fight to their deaths. Trip and Shaw are buried together symbolizing the bond that was created between them as they fought for the equality of all men.