- Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 by William A. Dobak
Often times, the role of the Union forces during the American Civil War has been described as being that of an army of liberation, charged with freeing the roughly four million enslaved African Americans living within the borders of the Confederacy. This narrative of the steadily advancing Union troops, armed with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation after January 1, 1863, typically implies that black slaves patiently and passively waited for deliverance. Recently, however, many Civil War historians have redirected their analyses of the conflict to the home front and the social and cultural implications of emancipation— shifting their attention, in large part, to the war’s effect on enslaved African Americans. And yet the picture still remained incomplete without a comprehensive examination of how more than two hundred thousand black men contributed directly to their own freedom as soldiers and sailors in the Union Army.
In Freedom by the Sword, award-winning military historian William A. Dobak attempts to fill this gap in the historiography. Quoting Civil War [End Page 199] historian Brooks D. Simpson, the author laments a scholarly trend since the mid-1990s that views black participation in the war as “a laboratory for social change,” a trend that continuously overlooks the role played by these soldiers from a strictly operational perspective. Dobak sets out to provide the most thorough study of black Civil War troops in the field from their earliest employment as “contraband” laborers in the opening months of the conflict, to the mustering out of tens of thousands of battle-tested black soldiers in the years immediately following the Confederate surrender in the spring of 1865.
The author is most successful in presenting this comprehensive analysis of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) due to a wise decision to organize Freedom by the Sword by operational theater or geographic region. Ample space has been devoted to the recruiting, regiment formation, and deployment of the USCT and other African Americans serving the Union Army as engineers, scouts, and laborers in theaters of war including the Department of the South (South Carolina, Georgia, and northeast Florida), the Department of the Gulf, the Mississippi River basin, and North Carolina and Virginia. Dobak shows that black soldiers and support staff were used in an increasing capacity in each of these regions as a tepid federal policy evolved from the First and Second Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862 respectively, to the Emancipation Proclamation that opened the door for the full combat employment of black men in Union blue.
Also of merit is Dobak’s ability to openly discuss the battlefield failures of many of these black soldiers in addition to their successes. The author repeatedly points out the numerous challenges faced by the men of these regiments, who struggled to overcome their often outdated equipment, lengthy delays in payments to the soldiers, and the ineffective leadership exhibited by hastily selected or unqualified white officers. Particularly during the early years of the war, the unproven black soldiers also coped with the personal and institutional racism that typified many white commanders and men alike in the U.S. Army at that time. Ultimately, however, the attitudes of the men most closely associated with the USCT and their cohort came to appreciate the patriotism, devotion, and battlefield capabilities displayed by the black soldiers, especially when given a legitimate chance to succeed.
The author illuminates this shifting sentiment with ample documentation from the correspondence and field reports of white officers, adding the necessary personal touches to a strictly operational history. Aside from these letters, however, Dobak draws almost exclusively from The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, and at times, the rich detail gleaned from years of archival research [End Page 200] bogs down the prose and may overwhelm the casual or non-expert reader.
Freedom by the Sword is a...