home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

soldiering for freedom

18 april 2014

African-American soldiers in the Civil War Union army probably exist for young people today mostly as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and a cast of thousands – if they exist in any active form at all. When I was growing up in Civil War Centennial times, they were invisible. If their contributions become better-known in the sesquicentennial and its legacy, Bob Luke and John David Smith's book Soldiering for Freedom will play its part.

Soldiering for Freedom has potential as a college textbook about the role of African-American troops in the Civil War, but it is also a good general read. It's part of a series called "How Things Worked," which seems to implicitly contrast the way stuff got done in the "long nineteenth century" to how we do them now. (Other volumes address things like emigrating to the United States, and heating one's home.) In 2014, if you want to join the Army, you contact a recruiter; if you're a young person leaving high school, they'll probably contact you. You take some tests and you head for Basic Training.

One figures it was something like that during the Civil War, and in salient ways it was. But since 1948, one aspect of a recruit's identity, color, has been irrelevant to service, at least de jure. Not so in the 1860s. Black soldiers were rarely paid bounties. They were deliberately paid less than their white peers. They were segregated into units led by white commissioned officers. (Originally, plans were for sergeants in "colored" units also to be white, but there just weren't enough white NCOs to go around.)

The business of volunteers getting to recruiters and recruiters getting to them could be extremely fraught, as Luke and Smith show. It was hard enough to recruit free blacks in sympathetic Northern states, let alone "contraband" people recently freed from slavery in the occupied South, who were often leery of trading slavery for military disciplines and dangers, on the strength of indeterminate promises. Worse still was the situation in the border states, where, paradoxically, slavery was still legal, and Unionist slaveholders could exempt their chattel from service. That meant that recruiters were licensed to sign up only the slaves of rebel sympathizers, a very hairy business. Some recruiters were killed in the process, like Eben White, on a tour in Maryland (42).

Integrating the Army, even at this rudimentary level, was a big social experiment. Ultimately a tenth of the Union army consisted of black men. (The Navy, Luke and Smith note, had long been fully integrated, as was much of the merchant service; in fact, the Civil War brought some unsuccessful attempts to segregate companies on board naval vessels, which proved impractical under the collaborative conditions of naval work.) Army officers in the U.S. Colored Troops were, as noted, white, and the demand for a substantial new cadre of officers led to some of the first officer-candidate schools, designed along meritocratic lines, with standardized examinations. (White units tended to elect their officers, but it seemed infra dig to let black men elect whites, let alone blacks, to such positions.)

Once formed into units, the USCT did mostly "fatigue" work: garrison duty, support labor. This was a source of resentment for troops who wanted to fight for abolition, and officers who wanted advancement. Ultimately quite a few black units saw combat, some of it memorable for disaster, all of it honorable: Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, the Crater, Olustee.

Vivid in Luke and Smith's narrative is the prevailing Anglo rhetoric of the 19th century, which saw African-Americans as only partially or parodically human. Many an officer or recruiter had contempt for his men, and a few came to a rueful admission of equality only by noting that whites were often not much better. Very few whites who commanded blacks were of the mind of the always-remarkable Thomas Wentworth Higginson (20-21), who set out to treat black men like any other men, and seemed to get results befitting his equable colorblindness. (Of course, as with many of Higginson's experiences, the main sources we have for them are the writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson.)

Luke and Smith point up the hysterically contradictory rhetoric from whites both North and South: that blacks were sheeplike creatures who would run from the first exploding shell they heard, but were also wolves in wait, needing only some blooding to become ravening beasts of rapine. The only way to hold both prejudices in one's head was to see African-Americans as outside the bounds of psychology and indeed of the human race. The war experience helped erode many of those prejudices, but the erosion has been gradual and seems not to be over in some of the border states even today.

Luke, Bob, and John David Smith. Soldiering for Freedom: How the U.S. Army recruited, trained, and deployed the U.S. Colored Troops. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. [How Things Worked]