The more I learn about history, the more I realize how much of it is not taught in schools. I recall learning about the Civil War but in limited discussions. And I fondly remember the 1989 film Glory featuring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington. The story of black soldiers in the Civil War needed to be shown but of course, there is far more to the story. Here, author James G. Mendez discusses the experiences of the Civil War’s black soldiers and their families during a time when America was being pulled apart at the seams. And what he shows is that there is far more to the story of the Civil War than one might expect.
When I saw this book in my list of recommendations, it immediately caught my attention. I knew beforehand that it would not be an easy read and my suspicion was correct. And though the story is not all tragedy and heartbreak, it is rife with examples of the grueling hardships black troops faced in the Union Army during the war as they fought for their freedom and the lives of millions of Black Americans. But before the author arrives at the point of the induction of black troops, he first provides a discussion of the social climate in America which constantly denied African Americans basic rights. Frankly, life was brutally hard for blacks and as the author shows, basic rights were a dream for them. Readers might be shocked to see that states considered to be “liberal” or “blue” today have their own dark history including New York, my home state. Mendez pulls no punches and shows that even in the North, blacks still faced enormous hurdles, and support for the war effort varied and was not unified behind the idea of eradicating slavery. In fact, the author’s work shows that attitudes towards slavery were varied and unpredictable. However, the abolitionists were determined to see its demise.
I once told a friend that black history is American history. I say this because you cannot separate the two. And as can be seen in the book, the efforts of Black Americans have been crucial in the history of this nation. In regard to combat, Mendez explains:
“Blacks fought, both as slaves and free men, in every American war, including the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War. They fought bravely and received accolades from prominent American leaders such as Andrew Jackson, who acknowledged after the Battle of New Orleans (December 1814 to January 1815) that black soldiers played a major role in his victory.”
Despite the contributions of blacks, resistance to black troops during the Civil War was strong and commonplace. Readers will be disheartened and surprised to learn of the attitude towards using black troops held by those in power in across states in the Union and in the army itself. Delaware in particular will stand out to readers in the book. As the war progressed, it became apparent that the Union Army needed manpower and eventually, the idea of using black troops became a reality due to the actions of Governor John A. Andrew (1818-1867) of Massachusetts. His vision and the developments that ensued will provide readers with a firm foundation as the story of the Northern Black troops kicks into high gear.
As one would expect, the arrival of black troops did not always go smoothly and the harsh reality the new soldiers faced is discussed. And their opponents were not solely those wearing a uniform. In fact, I learned for the first time about the deadly race riots in Detroit and New York City that were horrifying. The shocking events and impact on the troops’ morale is a crucial point in the book for it shows the difficult place black troops found themselves in. How did they have the courage and will to fight for a country that denied them basic rights? In the face of severe hostility and violence, blacks continued to enlist in the Union Army. And to put the importance of their service into perspective, Mendez provides key statistics:
“Nearly 200,000 black soldiers served in the Civil War—178,975 in the army and the remainder in the navy. Out of the total number in the army, 32,723 were from the North.”
On the battlefield, black troops fought and died alongside white soldiers but even in death they and their families continued to suffer indignations. Not only was the pay between whites and blacks unequal but for black families, obtaining benefits for a loved one’s death could be impossible. The sad and complicated story of the unequal pay matter is one of the darkest parts of the book, yet it makes the story of the troops even more remarkable. The military and Congress did eventually address the matter, but the timing will leave readers mystified.
In the film Glory, the battle scenes are graphic, and it is known that the savagery in which battles were fought was not for the faint at heart. However, I learned here that soldiers often died due to conditions that would not be fatal today and the leading causes of their deaths may surprise you. Of course, what the author reveals does make sense in hindsight but is still shocking. Further, those who survived returned with their scars and trauma. Survivors of the war include Charles R. Douglass (1844-1920), the son of abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). His story is a prime example of the extensive damage the war inflicted upon its participants.
Eventually, the war reaches its bloody climax, and the Confederacy is forced to concede defeat. But the Union mission was far from over. Black troops were needed more than ever and how they were used after the South’s defeat is, yet another example of the difficulties faced by them before, during, and after the war. But what stands out here is that the reality of black troops being gatekeepers of the South was a recipe for a disaster and doomed from the start. The intricacies of the Union’s post-war actions and failures by Washington are additional tragedies that afflicted black troops and the country, inadvertently paving the way for the rise of Jim Crow. This book is not about the Reconstruction Acts, but Mendez does mention the actions of President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) who clashed with Radical Republicans as the latter sought to rebuild the South completely.
I wish this book had been available and required reading when I was a student years ago. There is a wealth of information contained here often neglected or possibly unknown. America has come a long way since the Civil War, but the conflict continues to haunt the nation as the issues of race and equality remain at the forefront. In comparison to the 1800s, life for Americans is vastly different. But let us not forget that between 1861 and 1865, America was at war with itself, and joining the effort were its black residents fighting for their lives and the freedom of future generations.