Today I had the pleasure of reading Eric Wittenberg’s latest post over at his blog regarding what he considers the top 12 Civil War books of all time. Eric was inspired by Glen LaFantasie, who wrote his own top 12 list which you can find here. This, in turn, inspired me to put together my own list of what I think are the top 12 books about United States Colored Troops (although I should hasten to add that I am in no way putting myself in the same category as Wittenberg or LaFantasie). Since the literature pertaining to black soldiers is not as varied as Civil War literature in general, I will refrain from using the same constraints that both experts placed upon themselves in their selections.
I’m sure that some of you out there may disagree with my choices and, if that is the case, I’d love to hear your opinions as to which book you think should have made the list (but trust me – narrowing the selection to 12 was a very difficult process).
Now, without further ado, here is my top 12 list:
12. The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois: The Story of the Twenty-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry by Edward A. Miller, Jr. Published by the University of South Carolina Press in 1998, this is one of the finest and most complete regimental histories of any USCT unit yet written. Dr. Miller consulted pension records, regimental papers, reports, and letters to trace the history of the 29th USCI (the only USCT unit raised in Illinois) from its recruitment in late 1863 through its combat experience with the Army of the Potomac, where it served in the rear guard during the Overland Campaign and finally saw action in the infamous Battle of the Crater. Miller goes on to chronicle the 29th’s consolidation into the 25th Army Corps and its service in the Appomattox Campaign and postwar service in Texas. By examining the extant records and looking at the demographics of the men who served in the unit, Miller paints a nearly complete picture of a USCT regiment in camp and on the battlefield.
11. The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the Wars of 1775-1812, 1861-‘65 by Joseph T. Wilson. This remarkable work was written by a veteran of both the 2nd Louisiana Native Guard and the 54th Massachusetts, and was first published in 1887 (when it sold for a whopping $3.00). Part II of the book offered the first history of African American service during the Civil War, and Wilson did an admirable job of compiling as many contemporary sources as he could in this volume (which is all the more interesting considering he was living in Virginia when he wrote the book). Wilson detailed the pervasive prejudice against black troops, their heroism on the field of battle, atrocities committed by Confederate soldiers against USCTs, and even compiled a list of black Medal of Honor recipients. As is the case when anyone is writing on a subject for the first time, The Black Phalanx serves as a compilation of source material rather than a comprehensive analysis. That being said, it is still very much worth reading.
10. Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers During the Civil War by Keith P. Wilson. This is hands down one of the most fascinating books I have read on the Civil War, let alone on African American soldiers. I’ve always been interested in the life of the common soldier, and Wilson’s work provides a detailed look at the camp life of black soldiers. The book offers a plethora of fascinating and little known facts (the 54th Massachusetts had a glee club?) and looks at training, discipline, the religious life of black soldiers and chaplains, and how the soldiers chose to spend their free time. Wilson – a native of Australia – says that the purpose of his book was to “describe the soldiers’ lives in their camps…bring into focus the emotional texture of military life, to describe the dreams, aspirations, ambitions, and desires of the common soldier…[and] to analyze the process of cultural change that occurred within the army camps” (p. xiii). The result is a fascinating work that any Civil War buff will want on their shelf.
9. After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans by Donald R. Shaffer. This 2004 offering from the University Press of Kansas takes a look at what happened to black Union veterans after the cessation of hostilities. Shaffer's work is based on a random sample of the postwar experience of 1,000 ordinary black soldiers, a look at 200 African American veterans involved in "notable activities" after 1865, and a special census taken in 1890 of surviving black veterans. The result is a complex tapestry of mingled hope, achingly slow progress, and the ugly realities of post war racism. Required reading for a complete understanding of the USCT experience.
8. A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th United States Colored Infantry, 1863 –1866 by Edward G. Longacre. Perhaps this book made it onto my list because it details the history of a unit that won its laurels at New Market Heights (four Medals of Honor went to the men of the 4th) and included the inimitable Christian Fleetwood. That said, however, the 4th USCI is certainly a very worthy topic for a regimental history. Not only did the 4th rack up an impressive combat record, it is also noteworthy for its social make up. Organized in Baltimore in the summer of 1863, the 4th USCI consisted of free men such as Christian Fleetwood (who read Greek, Latin, French, and Spanish) and former slaves, which presented a recruiting problem in a loyal state that still maintained the institution of slavery. Still, the 4th participated in the opening battles around Petersburg, was held in reserve at the Crater, helped construct the Dutch Gap canal, and won fame on the fields of New Market Heights. The unit took part in the expedition against Fort Fisher before being mustered out in Washington in 1866 (where Company E posed for one of the most iconic images of United States Colored Troops ever taken). Longacre does an admirable job and proves that there is ample source material sufficient to chronicle USCT units if you do enough digging.
7. Army Life in a Black Regiment by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Written by a militant abolitionist turned officer of the 1st South Carolina (later the 33rd USCT), this book was originally a series of essays that made it into book form in 1870. Higginson was hell bent on proving that former slaves could be turned into the equals of any white unit fielded by the Union army, and that military service was a key first step to black citizenship . The book has many high points such as Higginson’s account of reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his men and it contains eloquent observations such as his concluding sentence – “It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.” While Higginson’s observations may seem outdated and his paternalistic attitude may grate against modern conceptions of race and equality, the reader should keep in mind that Higginson put himself at great risk during the war, since the Confederates would not have hesitated to make an example of an officer in command of black troops who hailed from Massachusetts and had fervently supported John Brown.
6. Freedom For Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era by Richard M. Reid. This 2008 work takes on the ambitious task of relating the history of four of the five African American units raised in North Carolina – the 35th, 36th, and 37th USCI and the 14th USCHA. Reid states that "the real value of this study lies in the fact that the activities, abilities, and utilization of these four regiments were sufficiently varied to encompass the experiences of most black soldiers" (326, 328). Mastering just about all of the primary source material on these four units, Reid not only gives a masterful account of their military service but he also delves into the realm of social history with a fascinating chapter that focuses on what happened to the service member’s families, especially those who sought shelter at the freedmen’s colony on Roanoke Island. Reid also examines what happened to these soldiers after the war during Reconstruction and reviews how veterans adjusted to life in a state that tragically fell under the control of former Confederates.
5. A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters From African American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865, edited by Edwin S. Redkey. Redkey’s 1992 compilation of 129 letters written to black and abolitionist newspapers forever put to rest Bell Wiley’s lament of a “dearth of letters written by the 200,000 blacks who donned the blue.” Redkey collected soldier letters written to the Christian Recorder, The Weekly Anglo-African, the Pine and Palm and other abolitionist newspapers from the period. Each chapter contains a substantial introduction and each letter or part of a letter is headed by a brief paragraph that gives essential information about the author and the events chronicled in the letter. The letters have a running theme of how African American soldiers saw soldiering as an opportunity to “elevate” their race and earn the rights and benefits of citizenship. They are often proud of their accomplishments, indignant at injustices that sprang from the Confederate army as well as their own, and confident of ultimate success. Noah Andre Trudeau mentions in the beginning of his chronicle of USCTs that Redkey’s book was a major influence upon his writing. The only down side to this otherwise marvelous collection is the unavoidable reality that letters written to newspaper editors were only written by the small portion of USCTs who could read and write. Furthermore, soldiers writing to their local newspapers tended to put a positive spin on their experiences and tell the readers what they already wanted to hear. Thus, there is a substantial portion of United States Colored Troops whose voices will remain forever silent.
4. Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith. This wonderful collection of 14 essays includes selections from authorities such as William Glenn Robertson, Noah Andre Trudeau, the late Art Bergeron, John Cimprich, and Keith Wilson among others. Some of the essays are short battle histories of the fighting that took place at Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend, Olustee, the Crater, New Market Heights, and Saltville. Other essays examine the lives of USCT chaplains, black recruitment efforts in the Mississippi Valley, USCTs who fought in Tennessee, and an outstanding survey of the fortunes of the United States Colored Cavalry. While each scholarly piece can stand on its own, the essays are in chronological order and if the book is read from cover to cover this work will serve as an outstanding overview of black Union soldiers.
3. Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau. Coming in at number three is Noah Andre Trudeau’s now-classic 1998 fighting history of the USCT. Trudeau did an amazing amount of research, taking up where Redkey left off by delving deep into the extant collection of letters, diaries, and pension records left by black troops and their officers. The result is a vivid narrative that brims with firsthand accounts and should forever put to rest the misguided notion that African Americans were passive and scarcely lifted a finger to secure their own freedom (an idea touted by William E. Woodward in 1928 and one that is still popular in Neo-Confederate and Southern Heritage circles). Unfortunately this book never achieved the acclaim of some of Trudeau’s other works. Perhaps the Sesquicentennial will remedy that.
2. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar. Joe Glatthaar had the good fortune of publishing his study on the relationship between black enlisted men and their white officers right on the heels of the motion picture Glory. That being said, it has landed in the number two slot for a reason – it is the most detailed analysis yet written on said relationship. Glatthaar dispels the notion that all white officers who led black troops were mini Thomas Wentworth Higginsons or Robert Gould Shaws. Many officers thought poorly of their men, held the same racist views that permeated American society at the time, and could be extremely harsh on their men for what most would consider minor infractions. Moreover, many white enlisted men only sought the opportunity to serve in the USCT because they desired higher rank and the resultant pay increase that came with it (Glatthaar quotes one Illinois soldier who quipped, “I would drill a company of alligators for a hundred and twenty [dollars] a month”). However, the process by which white men were recruited and tested shows that, no matter what their motivations, the USCT provided some of the best trained officers to emerge from the Union war effort. The book goes on to examine recruitment, training, dealing with the racism and opposition, and the test of battle that many of these men faced. The book ends with an examination of occupation duty and the postwar careers of some of the men who fought in the USCT. While Glatthaar clearly achieved his stated goal of examining “the inner workings of…black commands, to investigate conduct, attitudes, and experiences among the participants” (p. x), my main quibble is that he rarely mentions the Army of the James, which just happened to be the fighting force with the largest concentration of black soldiers in the entire Union army. Why he did not investigate this neglected army is beyond me, but the book is still one of the very best in its field.
1. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 by Dudley Taylor Cornish. It should come as no surprise that this book is still the standard introductory work on the subject of United States Colored Troops and that, even though it is 54 years old, it still has not been surpassed. When the book debuted in 1956, the struggle for civil rights was still raging and many of the popular titles on the Civil War made no mention of black troops whatsoever. Cornish’s assertion that “As a soldier in the Union army, the Negro soldier proved his manhood and established a strong claim to equality of treatment and opportunity” may have ruffled some feathers, but he provided the necessary data and statistical evidence to back up his claim. The book was well received in the scholarly community, and T. Harry Williams asserted that “The Sable Arm must be rated as a major study that throws new illumination on a neglected side of the war.” In the book, Cornish vividly describes the various forces and unique individuals who compelled the Lincoln Administration to adopt the controversial policy of recruiting free blacks and runaway slaves for military service, the formation of the 166 regiments that made up the United States Colored Troops , and the performance of those units in combat. Cornish set the bar very high and blazed a trail for those who devote themselves to the study of the African American contribution to Union victory. If you wish to deepen your understanding of the USCT, start by reading The Sable Arm. I promise you, you won’t regret it.