Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era

By Erslev, Brit K. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January-April 2010 | Go to article overview

Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era


Erslev, Brit K., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era. By Richard M. Reid. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. Pp. xvii, 440; $40, cloth.)

In this extensively researched monograph, Richard Reid seeks to complicate our understanding of the image of the typical Civil War African American soldier, the attitudes of whites toward blacks' service in the Union army both during and after the war, and the effects of the war onblack soldiers' families. Reid's study centers on four North Carolina units: the Thirty-Fifth, ThirtySixth, and Thirty-Seventh United States Colored Troops (USCT), and the Fourteenth United States Colored Heavy Artillery (USCHA) . The three infantry regiments were originally intended to comprise an African brigade, while the Fourteenth USCHA was an ad-hoc unit raised for defensive purposes against anticipated Confederate attacks to retake Union-controlled eastern North Carolina in mid 1864. What Reid finds in the case of these four units is that a complex mix of personalities, geography, and timing produced four distinct experiences that prevent neat generalizations about black soldiers in the Union army.

Reid starts by summarizing President Abraham Lincoln's evolving policy toward the abolishment of slavery and use of African American troops, noting that interested parties in New England quickly looked to the Unionoccupied portions of the Confederacy for potential recruits after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. One of these interested parties was Massachusetts governor John Andrew, who directed Colonel (later General) Edward A. Wild, a command veteran with abolitionist sympathies, to recruit an African brigade in the spring of 1863. Because of his personal involvement from an early date and the initial lack of federal guidance, Wild was able to get his first regiment staffed with hand-picked officers, including the commander, James Chaplin Beecher (son of Lyman and brother of Harriet), as well as a black chaplain and doctor. Wild and his officers worked to adequately train the regiment in drill and musketry and appointed blacks to the critical non-commissioned officer positions. After transferring with the Thirty-Fifth USCT to South Carolina, however, Wild was unable to direct the raising of the next two North Carolina units. Because of this change in circumstances -along with new federal regulations, competition among units for officers and recruits, and the needs of the army - the commanders of the Thirty-Sixth and Thirty-Seventh USCT had a much harder time assembling and training their regiments.

The author devotes one chapter each to the recruitment and service of the four units. The Thirty-Fifth USCT fought in the Battle of Olustee in February 1864 and garnered praise for its actions despite the Union loss, but it was not immune to supply issues as well as occasional tensions between the white officers and black soldiers. The other regiments experienced even more discord within the ranks, which negatively affected their combat readiness. The Thirty-Sixth USCT founditself in the unique position of serving for several months as the guard unit at the Point Lookout prison camp in southern Maryland, where Confederate captives chafed under the reversal of racial authority.

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