- Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867
Black military history, which sprouted only buds of historiography a few decades ago, is currently laying deep roots. Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, by William A. Dobak, takes his audience into a new line of inquiry.
From seminal studies of the Buffalo Soldiers on the late nineteenth-century western frontier, through participation in subsequent wars, including the black militia, much has been added to our knowledge of the once ignored African American units. According to Dobak, however, the research has largely centered on relations with the civilian and larger military communities, and the consequences of military service to the enlisted men and their white officers. By contrast, the author presents an operational history of the incipient professionals in the Civil War.
Dobak comes well equipped to the task. An award-winning historian at the Army Center of Military History, he and Thomas D. Phillips broke new ground by challenging long held assumptions eleven years ago in The Black Regulars, 1866-1898 (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2001). They argued that replacement demands and not sentiment spurred Congress to organize professional regiments after the Civil War and that the military essentially treated blacks in the manner of white soldiers. Drawing from official documents, many unpublished, Dobak in his new effort has rendered a voluminous account of the induction of the black soldiers into service, the ensuing problems and adjustments, and particularly their role in the war effort.
African Americans had fought in every war in U.S. history, but never on the scale or duration of the Civil War. Although they eventually constituted 12 percent of the Union forces in the war, timidity and reluctance dogged the early attempts of the slaves and free men who hungered to participate. White suspicions of the blacks' [End Page 335] abilities, Lincoln's sensitivity to loyal slaveholders' interests, and his desire to keep as much of the Union intact as possible all delayed the use of black troops. Additionally, not all blacks rushed to the colors, for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, the necessity for manpower and the determination of prospective enlistees converted the government's baby steps into full-fledged acceptance of the race. Indeed, the United States employed recruiting gangs in some areas reminiscent of slave catchers. By 1863 ex-bondsmen and free persons were garrisoning camps, protecting lines of communication, and engaging in combat. Duty brought new crises: Confederates sometimes inflicted summary executions on black prisoners and spread rumors that the government would return soldiers to slavery after the war.
Dobak's narrative allows events to tell the story, and in marked detail. Rather than isolate the black soldiers in his story, the author places then in the larger political and military context, ranging from Virginia to the trans-Mississippi West. He analyzes seven geographical sections, indicating the distinctive nature of the campaigns and the role of the new recruits. Due to location and Union policy, Texas played a less dramatic role in the war than its eastern neighbors; nevertheless, black soldiers maintained a prominent presence, essentially guarding the Mexican border and monitoring the French occupation of Mexico.
Because of their later enrollment and discharge dates, African Americans remained in uniform well into the Reconstruction period. Here they frequently suffered emotional and physical abuse from the supposedly victimized southern whites.
Freedom by the Sword is a well-researched and written book, particularly for the specialist, though its detail may challenge the casual reader. Anyone hungering for knowledge of the subject is cautioned by its five hundred-plus pages to carry a ravenous appetite to the table.