Black Soldiers in Blue

Article excerpt

Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith, is an eclectic compilation of stories about the outstanding black soldiers who served in the Union Army from 1861 to 1865.' This book addresses only black soldiers who served in the Army. It does not address the estimated 60,000 blacks who served with the Confederate Army in both combatant and support roles.2 The book also does not produce much fresh material, and Smith sets an unmistakably biased tone typical of those who neglect the fact that blacks served on both sides during the Civil War.

As if to portend problems within the text, the dust jacket has a popular, but fake, picture of Louisiana black troops retouched to appear as Union soldiers. The picture was made from a prewar photograph taken of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards in their gray uniforms. Subsequently, the photograph was colortoned blue so the subjects appear to be Union soldiers. An American flag and other changes were also added to the original photograph.

Another photograph used in the book is purportedly a black Civil War soldier and a young woman. The photograph, however, was likely made about 20 years after the Civil War. Judging by the soldier's Model 1875 cap insignia, he was a member of the 25th Infantry. The five-button blouse did not even enter service until 1883. Taken as a whole, these photographs add to the plethora of incorrect information that exists about black soldiers and their Civil War service.

I question Smith's ever-increasing number of black soldiers who served in the Civil War. In one place he says there were 179,000. In another place, he says there were 180,000. His numbers are attributed to "African-American" troops; however, all "colored" troops were included in numbers cited by the U.S. Army, including Hispanics and other minorities. The ease with which he adds thousands of soldiers to the rolls raises questions of precision and accuracy.

Portraying the Union Army as openly embracing black soldiers, the book downplays or completely ignores the despicable treatment these men received in an army that was supposed to be "freeing them." Such Union generals as Ulysses S. Grant (who possessed slaves brought into the family by his wife) and William Tecumseh Sherman (who insultingly called black soldiers "Sambos") tainted the views of their subordinates and ensured racism and prejudice would be sanctioned. Black soldiers were not completely integrated into the military until 1948 when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981.

Black soldiers were good enough to serve and die for the country-just not with whites. Even officer ranks were practically devoid of blacks because blacks were thought to be incapable of leading soldiers. The few black officers who were allowed to be commissioned into the Army were placed so they would not lead white soldiers. The emancipationists' dream was smoke and mirrors cloaked in self-righteousness to hide the Army's extreme prejudice and racism.

While the book mentions forced enlistment of blacks into military service during the Civil War, it does not broach the wide scope of the problem-the presumption that because it was the Union Army, it was not a major problem. However, official records reveal several citations of dragooning unwilling blacks into Federal service.

On 12 May 1862 from Port Royal, South Carolina, Treasury Special Agent Edward L. Pierce wrote to secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase: "This has been a sad day on these islands. . . . The scenes of today . . . have been distressing. . . . Some 500 men were hurried ... from Ladies and Saint Helena [Islands] to Beaufort . . . , then carried to Hilton Head.... The Negroes were sad.... The superintendents . . . aided the military in the disagreeable affair, disavowing the act. Sometimes whole plantations, learning what was going on, ran off to the woods for refuge. Others, with no means of escape, submitted passively to the inevitable decree. …