Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America

Article excerpt

Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America. By Douglas R. Egerton. (New York: Basic Books, 2016. Pp. [xii], 429. $32.00, ISBN 978-0-465-09664-0.)

For years, many Americans owed their familiarity with the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry to the movie Glory (1989), which took liberties but conveyed many things quite well, including the effects of the Fifty-fourth on northern attitudes and the ambivalence that some black Union soldiers felt about serving under a flag that had not served them. The film culminated with the dramatic attack on Battery Wagner in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, which took place on July 18, 1863. The battle resulted in a 42 percent casualty rate for the Fifty-fourth, including the death of its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, whose burial in a pit with his men constitutes the movie's closing scene. About three-fifths of Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America, in contrast, takes place after July 1863, and therein lies the book's greatest importance. Douglas R. Egerton leaves some crucial topics unexamined, but in telling the longer story of the Fifty-fourth and its two sibling regiments--the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry and the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry--Thunder at the Gates enhances what we know about several aspects of soldiering, and it situates the experiences of these regiments within current historiographical conversations about the costs of the Civil War.

Drawing chiefly on published sources, like memoirs, autobiographies, published letter collections, newspapers, and periodicals, Thunder at the Gates combines biographical profiles with chronological narratives. Early chapters include interesting locket-sized portraits of black and white soldiers who fought with Massachusetts's African American regiments. The lockets snap closed as successive chapters narrate mustering in, training, travel, camp life, and battle, occasionally opening the lockets for glimpses of individuals amid the action. Later chapters consider the war's aftermath and the long-term legacy of the regiments.

The narrative detail dedicated to multiple aspects of soldiering makes for absorbing reading. Daily life in training camp at Readville, Massachusetts (in chapter 3), hospital conditions (in chapter 6), and payday in camp are vividly portrayed. Accounts of black Massachusetts regiments at the fall of Charleston and Richmond are particularly engrossing. …

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