Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era

By John David Smith | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

African Americans of the Civil War era understood what historians understand now—that emancipation and the use of blacks as armed soldiers were defining moments in the history of the race. Writing in September 1863, G. E. Hystuns, who became a noncommissioned officer in the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, wrote that arming his fellow blacks would erase “that semblance of inferiority of our race, which cruel Slavery has created.” He predicted that “if there is one spark of manhood running in the blood of the Race that has resisted the … waves of oppression, the school of the soldier will fan it to a glowing flame.” Thirteen years later, during the American Centennial, the Civil War veteran and pioneer black historian George Washington Williams celebrated the moment when the life of our nation hung upon the thread of uncertainty, the slave threw down his hoe, took up his musket, and saved the country.” Williams was certain that when the history of this country is written in truth—when Freedom counts her jewels and reviews her glorious army of martyrs—the negro will be there.” This, according to historian David W. Blight, was the “emancipationist vision” of the war.1

Over the last four decades, historians have made great strides in integrating the “emancipationist vision” of the war into mainstream Civil War scholarship. Important books by Dudley Taylor Cornish, James M. McPherson, Ira Berlin, Joseph T. Glatthaar, Noah Andre Trudeau, and others have documented, narrated, and analyzed the military service of the almost 179,000 African Americans who fought against the Confederates, suppressing their rebellion and destroying slavery. This corpus of scholarship, together with Edward Zwick's powerful 1989 film Glory, has raised scholarly and public consciousness of the vital role and varied experiences of

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