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In August 1863, following the assault on Fort Wagner by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry the month before, the Atlantic Monthly engaged its readers in the question so important to mid-nineteenth-century white Americans. With manhood being defined in terms of defending rights, protecting families, and killing other men (soldiers) when necessary, were black males, in fact, men? U.S. Treasury agent Edward Pierce put the question succinctly: “Will they fight for their freedom?” (p. xiii). The Atlantic Monthly gave the answer: “Through the cannon smoke of that dark night the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see” (quoted from Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw, p. 53). In Freedom by the Sword, William A. Dobak provides hundreds of clear examples of determination and black manhood, thereby increasing the understanding of the role nearly 180,000 black men and their white officers played in winning the war for the Union.
Dobak is an expert reader of the reports and records made by officers and enlisted men to their superiors during the American Civil War. The massive archive of military records housed in the National Archives of the United States—especially Record Groups 15, 94, and 393—and the 128 volumes of published and unpublished reports of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union [End Page 217] and Confederate Armies (OR) have never been better scrutinized. Not since Ira Berlin, Joseph Reidy, and Leslie Rowland’s documentary, The Black Military Experience (1982) have we had so many African American soldiers speak directly by their words and actions in their own liberation.
Freedom by the Sword is a carefully documented and lavishly illustrated narrative, thick in detail, workmanlike, and convincing. What emerges is an encyclopedic treatment that is impressive in explaining the range of African American activities from nationwide recruiting to battlefield deaths and camp life across all the theaters of war from west Texas to central Virginia to the swamps and rivers of the Deep South. Mustering in and out gets adequate treatment.
This is military history in the old style. It is rich in statistics, battle engagements, and military maneuvers focusing squarely on where black regiments participated and how they comported themselves when they “saw the elephant” (a soldier’s term for battle). Richard Stewart, who is chief historian of the U.S. Army Center for Military History, praised the book for its operational emphasis showing “what they did as soldiers during the war” (p. xi). A fault line in Stewart’s statement and Dobak’s book lies in the way in which the home front and the battlefront have been artificially divorced. For three decades, the new military history has joined the two fronts into a comprehensive story that includes letters home, worries over those left behind, camp visits, and daily encounters with civilians. This is especially relevant in the case of black soldiers who came up from slavery and fought in close proximity to where loved ones were contrabands of war, or still lived on plantations and in towns. Dobak is fully aware that he is leaving out this part of the story to focus on men at war, but this leaves little room for a more complete analysis. Keeping his focus on the OR, Dobak also chose to use but a few of the memoirs, regimental histories, and readily-available archival sources. Many fine secondary sources and their analyses were also excluded, thus diminishing the complex interdependence of primary and secondary scholarship that comes through historiographical inclusion. [End Page 218]
Freedom by the Sword is a notable addition to the literature of African American participation in the Civil War. Dobak deserves praise for his thorough investigation into the OR and for providing a first-rate information source and comprehensive overview of the United States Colored Troops. The book will...