- Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops by Bob Luke, John David Smith
The National Park Service’s decision to use the theme “Civil War to Civil Rights” for its sesquicentennial commemorations demonstrates the changing contours of what counts as public Civil War history. This is a welcome change and one that shows a step toward more inclusive discussions about the war. In Soldiering for Freedom, Bob Luke and John David Smith add to this scholarship, providing a synthesized narrative of how black soldiers were “recruited, trained, and deployed.” This book will be a valuable option as an introductory text for college and high school students and for those needing a brief but thorough explanation of African American soldiers’ and sailors’ experiences.
Luke and Smith organize their book in terms of the steps from slave or civilian to soldier. The prologue begins with a familiar scene—the moments before the 54th Massachusetts’s famous attack on Fort Wagner. The ill-fated attack secured the reputation of black troops for many Americans but had “little effect on the prevailing culture of segregation in the U.S. Army” (4). The first chapter expands on that premise, describing the culture of racism that shaped the system of slavery, the initial goals of the war, and especially black military recruitment and service. The authors provide a brief history of black military service in the Revolutionary War and War of [End Page 94] 1812 and show that a number of decisions shaped whether or not black men served and how they served. Chapter 2 describes the various methods (legal and extralegal) recruiters employed to fill the ranks with black soldiers. The authors explain how and why state designations for black volunteer regiments changed to “numbered federal designations,” which placed the “black units . . . under federal auspices, not state authority” (38). The third chapter deals with white officers: how they obtained commissions, how they viewed their troops, and whether these views changed after extended interaction with black soldiers.
Chapters 4 and 5 form the heart of the book and explain how black men became soldiers and experienced combat, respectively. Chapter 4 centers on how former slaves and other African American men adjusted to the rigidity of military life. Chapter 5 describes racial violence inflicted on black troops at places like Fort Pillow and also what the authors call revenge killings (88). The remainder describes black troops on the offensive at places such as New Market Heights—where fourteen USCTs received the Medal of Honor. The epilogue briefly covers USCT involvement in Lincoln’s funeral and the beginning of Reconstruction, pointing out the disappointment black soldiers felt when southerners passed Black Codes to recreate the prewar status quo.
While this book is an excellent introduction, most readers familiar with works by scholars such as Joseph Glatthaar, Stephen Ash, Leon Litwack, and others will not find much new here. Additionally, the order of the chapters and the information under subheadings could be reorganized to make the text read less like a textbook and more like a narrative; the fourth chapter, for example, would be more helpful earlier in the book. Aside from this, the book will be immensely useful for the classroom and for people wanting a thorough synopsis of black soldiers in the war.