restricted access Men of Color to Arms: Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, and the Quest for Equality (review)
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Men of Color to Arms: Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, and the Quest for Equality. By Elizabeth D. Leonard. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Pp. xviii, 315. $37.95 cloth)

Elizabeth D. Leonard's Men of Color to Arms is a fascinating study of African Americans in the U.S. Army after the Civil War and the relationship of their service to the black pursuit of equal rights during the same period. Leonard is quick to point out the irony that while African American leaders used the presence of black men in the postwar army to justify suffrage and other rights, these soldiers were mostly used by the U.S. government to dispossess Native Americans of their ancestral lands. Hence, in their ultimately failed effort to increase their status in American society in the wake of emancipation, African Americans did considerable harm to Native Americans while spreading the jurisdiction of the very government that increasingly turned a blind eye to their own oppression.

Leonard begins her book with an examination of African American service for the Union during and immediately after the Civil War, focusing especially on Christian Fleetwood, a black recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the exclusion of the U.S. Colored Troops from the Grand Review in May 1865. She then examines the debate that led to the formation of six (soon consolidated to four) regiments for African Americans in the postwar army, the [End Page 108] organization and recruitment of these units, and their deployment to the frontier. These black soldiers, Leonard finds, faced many challenges of which fighting Native Americans was only one. They also struggled in the harsh climate of the West, while also facing the difficult task of establishing a positive relationship with their white officers and civilians. Leonard indicates that on the whole African Americans succeeded admirably, becoming an integral part of the postwar U.S. Army. The "black Regulars who were sent west," she writes, "worked hard and at great peril to their own lives participating in actions associated with all of the major conflicts between the army and the Indians in the regions where they were posted" (p. 85). Yet while Leonard shows the U.S. government recognized the valor of individual black soldiers in the form of commendations, medals, and sometimes pensions, it ultimately failed to defend the claim to equal rights that leaders like Frederick Douglass believed their service accorded African Americans.

Indeed, black men that tried to achieve a higher status within the U.S. Army than enlisted men in segregated regiments found considerable resistance. In this regard, Leonard explores the experience of the handful of black men who in decades following the Civil War enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. These racial pioneers, she not surprisingly writes, found a hostile reception. "Many whites, both within the army and outside of it, fervently opposed the idea that a black man should be permitted to serve as a commissioned officer . . . especially if the men under his authority might be white" (p. 151). African American cadets at West Point in the late nineteenth century found themselves ostracized and harassed, and only a few managed to graduate and then served only in the black regiments.

The author laudably throughout the book tries to put the experience of black Regulars in larger historical context and to look for topics of larger cultural significance to illuminate their significance. Yet this effort is also the one major defect of Men of Color to Arms. In her well-intentioned effort to avoid letting this book become [End Page 109] narrowly parochial, Leonard adds so much contextual information, sometimes with only a tenuous connection to her ostensible subject matter, that occasionally the postwar African American soldiers seemingly get lost in the mix. Still, there is considerable insight in this work and the breadth and depth of the research is impressive. Elizabeth D. Leonard's Men of Color to Arms is a worthy contribution to the historical literature on African Americans after emancipation and the American military experience.

Donald R. Shafer

Donald R. Shafer teaches history online for the American Public University...