Friday, February 26, 2010

The Pride of a Parent

Well, it looks as if this blog might go unattended for a few weeks, as my wife and I are celebrating the birth of our first child.

It’s difficult to describe the feelings that race through your mind when you stare at your baby for the very first time, but some things are put into perspective.

For instance, I have an entirely new perspective on the following quote, spoken by an African American soldier offering his services to the Federal army after the City of New Orleans had fallen:

“No matter where I fight; I only wish to spend what I have, and fight as long as I can, if only my boy may stand in the street equal to a white boy when the war is over.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fleetwood Saves the Colors at New Market Heights

This painting was a part of Dr. Louis Manarin's two volume history of Henrico County during the Civil War entitled Field of Honor. It was painted in 1999 by an artist named Joseph Umble and the copyright belongs to the County of Henrico.

I thought I would share this with you because it is one of a very few recent paintings that I know of that specifically honor the deeds of an African American soldier during the Civil War. While John Paul Strain cashes in on painting every single place that Stonewall Jackson ever visited and other artists make a name for themselves by showing us how easily Lee and Jackson were "moved to tears", this painting stands in stark contrast.

Not only does it honor a singular act of heroism, it also touches upon the enduring legacy of the American Civil War.

If only there were more like it...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Some Required Reading

I have an essay in the works that traces the historiography of African American troops in the Civil War, but while I’m working on that I thought I’d post a few books that are required reading for the subject. I figured I’d post 10 general histories that one should consider and then some unit histories and memoirs that stand out as well. Here goes.

General Works

1.) The Black Phalanx: African American Soldiers In The War Of Independence, The War Of 1812, And The Civil War by Joseph T. Wilson (1887)

2.) The Negro in the Civil War by Benjamin Quarles (1953)

3.) The Sable Arm by Dudley Taylor Cornish (1956)

4.) Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867, Series II: The Black Military Experience edited by Ira Berlin (1982)

5.) Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar (1990)

6.) A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865 by Edwin S. Redkey (1992)

7.) Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau (1998)

8.) Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith (2002)

9.) Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War by Keith P. Wilson (2002)

10.) After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans by Donald R. Shaffer (2004)

Unit Histories

1.) A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the 54th Massachusetts, 1863-1865 by Luis F. Emilio (1891)

2.) Eagles on Their Buttons: A Black Infantry Regiment in the Civil War by Versalle F. Washington (1999)

3.) Strike the Blow For Freedom: The 6th United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War by James M. Paradis (2000)

4.) A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th United States Colored Infantry, 1863-1866 by Edward G. Longacre (2003)

5.) Freedom For Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era by Richard M. Reid (2008)


1.) Army Life in a Black Regiment by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1870)

2.) Out of the Briars: An Autobiography and Sketch of the Twenty-Ninth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers by Alexander H. Newton (1910)

3.) As if it were Glory: Robert Beecham's Civil War from the Iron Brigade to the Black Regiments edited by Michael E. Stevens (2007)

Keep in mind this is only skimming the surface – but if you’re interested in researching this topic this is a good place to start.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spelling Am Hard

So I was working on the powerpoint portion of my upcoming lecture entitled “Before They Were Killer Angels” (see here: when I realized that the title page read:

“Before They Were Killer Angles


“Hey dude, check out the angles on that isosceles triangle.”

“Killer dude. Killer…”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Take Our Stand |

Take Our Stand

Father Abraham & the USCT's

Since President’s Day was this past Monday, I thought I’d blog a bit on our 16th President and his relationship with the USCT’s.

Abraham Lincoln had the good sense to realize that African American soldiers were “a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us.” From the adoption of the Second Confiscation and Militia Acts in 1862 to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Lincoln’s thoughts on the usefulness of black soldiers had evolved. This evolution would continue through the end of the war when he would ruffle feathers by recommending the commissioning of black officers and pushing for full citizenship and voting rights for those who served.

But what of the personal relationship between Lincoln and his “black phalanx”? Well, it was a relationship that got off to a rocky start due to one of the aforementioned pieces of legislation – the Militia Act of 1862. Lincoln had never been a big fan of the Second Confiscation Act or Militia Acts because their infringements on personal liberty made him worry that the acts would be dismissed as unconstitutional. Yet he was technically bound to them and the stipulation in the Militia Act that black soldiers only receive $10 a month ($7 pay and $3 clothing allowance).

Thus, when some USCT units came under fire for the first time and realized that Confederates wouldn’t shoot at them any less just because they received less pay, Lincoln had yet another problem on his hands. One African American soldier dubbed the disparity in pay as “Lincoln despotism.” Some units mutinied, while others wrote indignantly to the president, “Are we soldiers or are we labourers? We have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a soldier’s pay?”

The pay situation would eventually be settled by 1864. Still, when Lincoln had a chance to review some of the newly-raised USCT regiments on April 23 & 25, 1864 there may have been some lingering discomfort. The men of the IX Corps who paraded in front of Lincoln, however, had not been party to the pay dispute, and when they paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue they parted ways with military decorum and expressed their joy at seeing the president by singing and dancing in the streets. Lincoln doffed his hat to the passing troops and when General Ambrose Burnside asked if the Honest Abe might be more comfortable inside the tent, sheltered from the freshly falling rain, he stated: “If they can stand it, I guess I can.”

In late June of 1864, Lincoln would again get a chance to review some USCT units, this time during a visit to the Petersburg front. When Grant and Lincoln rode by black soldiers of the XVIII Corps, Army of the James, the troops once again burst into cheers. “De Lord save Fader Abraham!” and “De day ob jubilee am come, shuah!” were just a few of the shouts heard as Lincoln ambled by. He tried to voice his appreciation to the men, but according to one eyewitness, Lincoln’s voice was “so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak…The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one witnessed it unmoved.”

The relationship between Lincoln and his black soldiers is often portrayed as paternalistic and immovable. Yet at times, even this unique bond was proven to be vulnerable to the strains of a country advancing in fits and starts toward a new birth of freedom.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

VA War Museum to show Glory

From the Website:

February Film Fest Month: Glory
February 20, 2010 - 1:00 pm

The museum will host a film festival during the month of February featuring films with African-American themes. All movies are free with each day's paid admission. All movies start at 1 p.m.


Starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick, this 1989 movie chronicles the all-black 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Their final assault on Fort Wagner, S.C. demonstrated their bravery and turned a bitter defeat into a symbolic victory that brought recognition to black soldiers.

Monday, February 15, 2010

As long as people believe tripe like this, methinks this blog is necessary…

In 1928 a man by the name of William E. Woodward wrote a God-awful book entitled Meet General Grant.

Towards the middle of the book, Woodward opines:

“The American negroes are the only people in the history of the world, so far as I know, that ever became free without any effort of their own…It [the Civil War] was not their business. They had not started the war nor ended it. They twanged banjos around the railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would soon come along and give each forty acres of land and a mule” (Woodward, Meet General Grant, p. 237).

Apparently it never occurred to Mr. Woodward that “some Yankee” might just be a USCT...

For Love of Liberty

I just wanted to take a quick minute to give props to the new PBS documentary called For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots.

This 2-hour film gives the entire history of blacks in the military, with a good portion devoted to the American Civil War. Standard stories such as Robert Smalls’ commandeering of the USS Planter, the 54th Massachusetts’s attack on Battery Wagner, and (my favorite, of course) the story of the fourteen Medal of Honor winners at New Market Heights are competently and compellingly told. More controversial topics like Fort Pillow, Saltville, and other "massacres" are avoided, but the documentary is still very much worth watching.

For more information, check out:

In The Interest of Shameless Self Promotion…

For those of you who happen to live in the Metro Richmond area, I highly encourage you to check out the American Civil War Center’s new traveling exhibit entitled Take Our Stand: The African American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow, on display now at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

The exhibit tells the story of African American participation in the military during the fifty year span of 1898 – 1948. From the Spanish American War to the desegregation of the armed forces, Take Our Stand chronicles the exploits and travails of those Buffalo soldiers who fought two wars – one against America’s enemies and one against prejudice.

Now, technically the subject of this exhibit falls outside of the purview of this blog, so why, you may ask, would I mention it here?

Well, I wrote the first draft of the exhibit script back when I worked at the American Civil War Center!

Here’s the link:

The Why and Wherefore

Welcome to The Sable Arm – A Blog Dedicated to the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War Era!

It is my hope that this blog will serve several purposes:

To increase awareness of the role played by USCT’s during the American Civil War.

To examine the history, legacy, and memory of the men who served in the United States Colored Troops

To explore how veterans and contemporaries as well as professional and amateur historians have chronicled the story of the USCT’s.

To do away with some of the more longstanding and pernicious myths associated with USCT’s (i.e. only newly freed slaves fought in the ranks, etc.)

Lofty goals? You bet!

That’s where you come in! Like any good blog out there group discussion, polite debate, and a healthy exchange of ideas will hopefully lead to the accomplishment of the above-mentioned goals.

Now, for those of you wondering just who the heck this upstart trying to master the entire history of a subsection of the Union army is…here you go.

I am one of those lucky individuals whose passion is also their job. When my family moved to Virginia in the mid-80’s I became fascinated with the American Civil War and I have not looked back since (just ask my wife). I’ve had the good fortune to work at such places as Richmond National Battlefield, Pamplin Historical Park, and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.

After completing my Masters Degree, I became a museum educator for the County of Henrico in 2008. As many of you know, Henrico was the site of the Battle of New Market Heights, where fourteen African American soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. It is my research on this battle that sparked the idea for this blog and the rest, as they say, is history.

And speaking of history, let’s get to blogging, eh?