Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops by Bob Luke and John David Smith (review)
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Reviewed by
Bob Luke and John David Smith. Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 144 pp. 12 halftones. ISBN: 9781421413594 (cloth), $39.95; 9781421413600 (paperback), $19.95.

inline graphic In Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops, Bob Luke and John David Smith have successfully explained how the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) worked during the Civil War, the goal of this volume in the How Things Worked series from Johns Hopkins University Press. Admittedly, I was initially skeptical of a history of the USCT in a series thus titled, expecting to find texts on how scientific gizmos worked. I was relieved to discover Soldiering for Freedom offers a solid understanding of how the Union army recruited, trained, and deployed the 180,000 African Americans who contributed mightily to the Union defeat of slavery and the Confederacy as soldiers in the segregated regiments of the USCT. Fortunately, their overview incorporates the voices of free blacks, mostly from the northern states, as well as those of the slaves who fled to freedom behind the Union lines or were liberated and recruited when Union forces occupied states in rebellion. While one might expect this subject to be a straightforward history originating in the provision in Lincoln’s war measure, the Emancipation Proclamation, the employment of black men as soldiers was far more complicated. The authors work through the political and social intricacies of racism: explaining how Lincoln and abolitionist allies had to overcome the restrictions of the Militia Act of 1792, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the resistance of some northern governors, many army officers, most of the common white soldiers and the majority of the white citizenry. They bring the reader along as the nation enlarged the Civil War from the white man’s war to restore the Union to a fight by white and black soldiers and sailors to also abolish slavery.

Their discussion of how the politics and bureaucratic maneuvering worked to create the USCT will be especially helpful to undergraduate students and readers looking for an introduction to the role of African American soldiers and sailors. Luke and Smith cover the combat history of the USCT through its major battles, starting with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment leading the attack on Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863. Although this doomed attack, familiar to the public through the movie Glory (1989), is once again highlighted as the great example that black [End Page 93] soldiers would fight, the authors also dramatize less familiar but heroic engagements, for example, at the Mississippi River fortifications of Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend, both in Louisiana. While honoring deserving Union officers, they readily depict the poor leadership of other commanders, sometimes stemming from sheer stupidity, too often from blatant racism, that resulted in wasted black lives at the Battle of the Crater in Virginia on July 30, 1864, and the Battle of Olustee, Florida, on February 20, 1864. The authors’ coverage of these engagements is concise and dramatic, and for this book quite sufficient. Civil War buffs who want all the details can find the specific military maneuvers in Noah Trudeau’s Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862–1865 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998) or the encyclopedic USCT history, Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862–1867, by William Dobak (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2011). Luke and Smith recount the Battle of New Market Heights on September 29, 1864, during the Richmond-Petersburg campaign, at which fourteen soldiers of the USCT earned the Medal of Honor. But to gain a blow-by-blow account and understand that the horrific casualties suffered by USCT at that battle stemmed not from the carelessness of racist officers but from misplaced confidence of officers strong in abolitionist sentiments and weak in military strategy, one should turn to James S. Price’s monograph, The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2011).

Such in-depth analysis is...