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  • For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops by Kelly D. Mezurek
  • Zachery Cowsert
For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops. By Kelly D. Mezurek. (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2016. Pp. 368.)

Drawing upon a wide array of manuscript sources, regimental reports, pension files, newspaper accounts, and soldier service records, Kelly Mezurek's For Their Own Cause illuminates the experiences of the soldiers of the [End Page 186] 27th United States Colored Troops (USCT) during and after the Civil War. Comprised primarily of free blacks from Ohio, Mezurek notes that while other black regiments—such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry—loom large in history, "an evaluation of the 27th USCT provides the opportunity to explore a more representative example of Northern black participation, one in which there was a preponderance of fatigue duty but limited battle experience and even less recognition" (5). Perhaps because of the 27th USCT's unique roots as a Northern, free black regiment with few runaway slaves and its limited combat experiences, Mezurek veers away from a traditional, military-focused regimental history. Instead, she explores the 27th USCT within the wider context of the Northern free black experience.

In her opening chapter, Mezurek outlines the second-class citizenship free blacks endured in antebellum Ohio. Despite the war's outbreak, white Americans balked at the possibility of enlisting black troops, despite African American willingness to serve the Union. Yet the continuing grind of war, the implementation of the draft, and the success of other states in recruiting black outfits finally convinced Ohio to raise black regiments of its own. Chapter 2 reviews the formation the 27th USCT in early 1864, noting that most enlistees were volunteers, but many were enticed by recruiting bounties. From the outset, a shortage of quality white officers and medical staff hindered the unit.

In Chapter 3, Mezurek details the military campaigns of the 27th USCT. The black Ohioans served in Virginia and North Carolina from April, 1864 to September, 1865. Unlike their sister Ohio regiment the 5th USCT, the 27th saw relatively little action or commendation during their service. The 27th did take part in the disastrous Battle of the Crater at Petersburg in July, 1864, and also played a notable role in the campaign against Fort Fisher in February, 1865, helping secure the surrender of the fort's Confederate forces. Still, the 27th USCT's limited, inconspicuous combat experience sheds little new light on these military campaigns or wider African American combat experiences in the war. Moreover, the author's viewpoint often oscillates between the regimental, brigade, and divisional level, making battle and campaign narratives confusing at times.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Mezurek examines the drudgery and boredom that accompanied the fieldwork labor often assigned to black troops, and the daily realities of soldier life, respectively. These chapters will be familiar to scholars already acquainted with soldiers' experiences—black and white—outside of combat during the war. USCT troops were often tasked with menial manual labor, and likewise experienced racism at the hands of other white soldiers, sometimes even their own officers. Yet the drudgery of manual labor, the [End Page 187] boredom of camp life, the ravages of illness—all have already been well-documented by historians of both white and black Union soldiers, and occasionally, individual minutiae—illnesses, promotions, courts-martial, etc.—bog the reader down in these chapters.

In Chapter 6, the final and finest chapter, Mezurek does a fine job illuminating the many ways in which the soldiers of the 27th USCT worked to claim all of the benefits accorded to them as US citizens and military veterans postwar. Despite pushback from some white Ohioans, black veterans sought and eventually achieved black male suffrage at the polls. Black veterans claimed pensions (as did their families), formed and joined Grand Army of the Republic chapters (even alongside white Ohio veterans), resided in veterans' homes, and marched in veterans' parades. Mezurek persuasively contends that black soldiers "status as veterans . . . show that they were recognized as citizens and men who had access to more equal treatment that did those blacks who had not served in the American Civil War...


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pp. 186-188
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