Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867

Article excerpt

Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867. By William A. Dobak. (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2011. Pp. xvi, 553. Foreword by Richard W Stewart, illustrations, maps, photographs, tables, notes, bibliographic note, abbreviations, index. $58.00, cloth; $38.00, paper.)

William A. Dobak, a retired historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, tells the story of how the Union army's black regiments came into being, how their performance affected the outcome of battles, and the problems the United States Colored Troops (USCT) encountered during their service. The book "is primarily an operational history of the Colored Troops in action" and considers "every theater of the war in which they served" (p. xi).

Dobak offers a disclaimer for the incompetence and quality of some of the Union army's white officers, but shows that the USCT performed military duties as effectively as most white soldiers. For example, Freedom by the Sword details the performance of the USCT in the battle of Nashville (December 15-19, 1864), in contrast to the indifferent account by Stanley F. Horn in The Decisive Battle of Nashville (1956). Unlike Horn, Dobak uses personal accounts and official reports to give a detailed view of the USCT as they pursued the defeated Rebel army into Alabama. Dobak concludes that the USCT helped the Union repel the last Confederate offensive.

The author attempts to include some black social history but seems awkward at times. Yet a smoothly integrated social history could have helped the reader to better understand the importance of the Negro's contribution and sacrifice to the Union cause. In his chapter "Mustering In - Federal Policy on Emancipation and Recruitment," Dobak makes too little mention of the role of black leaders (e.g., Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, Harriet Tubman, Susie King Taylor, Martin Delany, etc.) in making emancipation a goal of the war and convincing President Abraham Lincoln to employ Negroes in the fight for freedom. Surely, such actions as their meeting with Lincoln on August 14, 1862, to discuss emancipation; Douglass's declaration, "Men of Color, to Arms," March 21, 1863; and Douglass asking the President to protect Negro Union army laborers from Confederate massacres positively affected the Union prosecution of the war and its results. But Dobak did not intend for Freedom by the Sword to be a socio-military history; instead, the book expertly focuses on the military operations of the USCT.

While writing that Reconstruction events "do not figure in the history of the U.S. Colored Troops," Dobak seems to agree with Peter Maslowski's Treason Must be Made Odious: Military Occupation and Wartime Reconstruction in Nashville, 1862-65 (1978) that Reconstruction began as early as 1862. …