Thunder at the Gates

This book by Professor Douglas Egerton discusses three United States Colored Troops regiments, the 54th Massachusetts, the 55th Massachusetts, and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, which were real black soldiers in the Civil War, not the mythological ones pushed by confederate heritage apologists.

Following the precept that the most interesting history writing is writing that reads like a story, Egerton gives us prose that appears as though he’s telling us a story with a number of characters. In the Prologue, he begins in April of 1865: “Weary after the long march, the black infantrymen fell to their knees, dropping their muskets and pulling off their heavy gear. Their white colonel, twenty-eight-year-old Alfred Hartwell, a Massachusetts native and a Harvard man, consulted his hand-drawn map and guessed them to be on the outskirts of Pineville, a South Carolina village of roughly 100 buildings. That morning, April 3, 1865, Hartwell had received orders to take a detachment of the Massachusetts Fifty-fifth Volunteer Infantry Regiment and head upland toward Lake Moultrie in search of Confederate cavalry. After firing a few shots at a mounted party riding in advance of Hartwell’s infantry, the Confederates vanished, but not before lynching a number of runaway slaves they found  hiding in a swamp. The discovery of the bodies brought the soldiers to their feet, and by the time they reached the gates of a plantation owned by Charles Porcher, the company was in no mood to be charitable to those yet loyal to the collapsing Confederacy.” [p. 1] While Porcher, a dyed-in-the-wool rebel, was spared, the same cannot be said for his house and outbuildings. All the enslaved people at the plantation were freed and the buildings burned. The black troops in South Carolina routinely had slave owners summon all their chattel together, and then the soldiers informed the enslaved people they were now free. Sergeant James Monroe Trotter of the 55th Massachusetts, who had been a teacher in the Midwest before the war, wrote to William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, the month before this incident that he “was not much surprised that the planters he dealt with were respectful ‘and were very skillful in concealing whatever bitterness they may have felt when seeing a ‘[n-word]’ with shoulder straps.’ The black sergeant could laugh at this, but only because he wore ‘a good Colt revolver’ on his hip.” [p. 2] Egerton points out the black soldiers were aware “it was not just Southern whites who despised the idea of a black man with stripes on his uniform, or even a black man in uniform.” [p. 2] He tells us, “Most of the recruits hailed from states that denied them the right to vote, banned their children from public schools, and allowed thugs to beat them when they boarded streetcars and trains. Trotter and his fellows had signed on to crush the Confederacy and put an end to the enslavement of 4 million blacks, but also to win for themselves the full rights and privileges of American citizens.” [p. 3]

In tracing the social effects of enlisting black soldiers, Egerton takes us back to the Revolution and the effects of black soldiers in that war. “Those who enlisted in early 1863 understood that it was by no means certain that their sacrifice would convince white Americans to accept their claims. A good many Northern freemen had fathers or uncles who had served in previous wars. Roughly 5,000 black men had joined the Patriots during the Revolution, but significantly, those soldiers disproportionately hailed from those New England states that were home to few Africa Americans overall. (Another 15,000 Africans and African Americans, mostly from the South, sided with the Loyalists as the best path to freedom.) Only Massachusetts permitted slaves to volunteer in exchange for their freedom, and many, such as Peter Salem, fought at both Concord and Bunker Hill. Several other Northern states allowed bondmen to enlist as substitutes for their masters, which typically resulted in freedom–provided they survived the fighting. Black veterans had prayed that the Revolution might offer not merely new opportunities for freedom but also full participation in the new political order. When Massachusetts crafted its new state constitution in 1780–even before slavery was abolished in the state–it rewarded black veterans by allowing all freedmen the right to vote. Slavery in the North collapsed fastest in those states that had lower proportions of blacks, but also in those that had high numbers of black veterans, who often returned from the war armed and prepared to liberate wives and children and to sue for political rights when necessary. Now their sons hoped to force an unwilling nation to finally recognize those rights.” [p. 3]

Egerton tells us the legislative story of how black enlistment came to be, as well as the stories of selected recruits, some of whom, like Nicholas Said, came from far away. We find out thirty 54th recruits came from Canada, but Said came from Nigeria, having traveled as a domestic slave to various Arab owners until he finally made his way to the United States. We also learn the stories of white officers, such as brothers Ned and Pen Hallowell and their friend, Robert Gould Shaw. He takes us through the recruiting, training, and shipping out of the regiments and through their struggles. Not all of their struggles were on the battlefield against confederates. At least one struggle was against their own government, such as with the 1862 Militia Act. “Drafted by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts and championed in the lower chamber by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the revision of the 1792 Militia Act authorized President Lincoln to call up another 300,000 men, ages eighteen to forty-five, with quotas based on state populations. Going a step further than the Second Confiscation Act, Wilson’s bill allowed African Americans–free or contraband–to enlist in the military, where they might perform ‘camp service, or any other labor.’ Provided their master was in rebellion, both the recruit and his ‘mother, wife and children’ would become free upon his enlistment. But if the clause permitting black men into ‘any military or naval service’ indicated that congressional Republicans at long last intended to admit them into the army, the wording of the law and a segregated pay scale suggested that they were not to be combatants. White privates were paid $13 each month, but section 15 of the Militia Act–thirty-one words destined to cause anger and division within black units–stipulated that black recruits would receive $10 per month, with $3 of that deducted to cover the cost of uniforms (a fee not charged to white soldiers).” [p. 52] The black soldiers, angered by this treatment, refused their pay. Their white officers followed suit.

Congress remedied the disparity the following year, with help from Attorney General Edward Bates. “Despite his Virginia birth and reputation as a conservative legalist, the attorney general submitted a short, almost brusque opinion to the president on April 23 [1863]. Ignoring the Militia Act, Bates instead pointed to the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, which authorized the president to employ African Americans in any way he saw fit. Bates chose to focus on the case of Reverend Samuel Harrison, the Fifty-fourth’s unpaid chaplain. Harrison was neither a soldier nor a laborer he reasoned, and so under the terms of the July 1861 Volunteer Service Act the chaplain was entitled to the same monthly salary of $100 paid to white  ministers. Although Bates avoided any mention of black combatants, the logic of his opinion pointed to equal pay for all servicemen. As William Lloyd Garrison crowed, the attorney general essentially ruled not only that black men deserved the same pay as whites, but that if ‘persons of African descent could be lawfully accepted as private soldiers, so also might they be lawfully accepted as commissioned officers.’ Bates even encouraged the president to consider it his ‘duty to direct the Secretary of War to inform the officers of the Pay Department of the Army that such is your view of the law.’ If Lincoln desired legal cover, he now had it. Yet Congress continued to muddy the waters. After Senator Wilson introduced a resolution to eliminate racially based salaries the previous February, Sumner was able to advance legislation to equalize pay for all solders as of January 1, 1864, with the law retroactive to the final months of 1862. Sumner was unable to defeat an amendment, however, favored by moderate Republicans who continued to fret about the costs involved, a complaint they never once advanced regarding white soldiers. The amendment sought to underpay the first contraband regiments. Under the law, finally passed in mid-June, only African Americans who were free as of April 19, 1861–just days after Lincoln called for troops following the attack on Fort Sumter–would be eligible for back pay. … Lincoln signed the bill into law on July 4, even though he professed to find the Congress’s distinction regarding back pay and enlistment dates confusing.” [pp. 236-237]

Egerton does make a few mistakes. On page 50 he calls Major General George B. McClellan a “New Jersey general.” While it’s true McClellan would, after the war, become governor of New Jersey, he was a Philadelphian who entered the war in command of Ohio troops. He didn’t make a New Jersey connection until after the war. In the previously quoted section on page 52 he says the 1862 Militia Act revised the 1792 Militia Act. It actually revised the 1795 Militia Act. On page 252 he repeats the myth of the rifled musket, that its increased range and accuracy spelled the end of cavalry charges. See Earl Hess’s The Rifle Musket for an effective refutation of this myth.

Dr. Egerton takes the story to the end of the Civil War, including the first black commissioned officer, Stephen Swails, and then takes their stories beyond the war, telling us what many of them did in the years after the war. Struggles for equality continued into Reconstruction, with the soldiers becoming an occupying force and doing what they could to protect the freed people in the South. As the men were discharged at the end of their enlistments they transitioned to civilian life, and Egerton follows a number of their stories. “Those who returned home did so as changed men. They had spent almost two years in the company of one another, forging bonds in the crucible of war. Even those who had wives or fiancées before their enlistment faced the daunting task of reestablishing family relations with those on the home front, who were now nearly strangers, who could not understand what they had endured–even if these women and children had faced challenges of their own. Once the cheering stopped on Boston Common, the black veterans had to find employment or go back to what for the most part had been low-paying jobs. A majority of soldiers from the three Massachusetts regiments traveled home to states that denied them the right to vote. But they had proven their worth as soldiers to their nation–the federal government, after all, was happy to have them fight on against Native Americans–and proved their manhood, both to themselves and to their communities. Because they had been paid only at the end of the war, most black veterans had considerable cash in their pockets, so they were relatively better able than other black Northerners to improve their economic position, obtain federal or state patronage jobs, and advance the cause of political reform. They had stood their ground when faced by formidable odds at James Island, at Wagner, at Honey Hill, and at Olustee, and they were not about to be intimidated by white conservatives who wished to restore the antebellum social and political order.” [pp. 305-306]

This book is a great read. It keeps your interest and provides a great deal of information. The few errors that crept in don’t affect the narrative or the overall accuracy. I highly recommend it.

2 comments

  1. Clint Geller · · Reply

    Professor Egerton owes yo a commission, Al. You just sold a book for him.

    1. Thanks, Clint. I think the book sells itself. 🙂

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