Soldiering for Freedom

Guest post by Bob Luke

Long before co-authoring Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops with John David Smith, the Civil War fascinated me. My grandfather on my father’s side, born just ten years after Appomattox, treasured his copy of Francis Trevelyan Miller’s The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes. He bought it during the Depression with money saved from ever-declining sales at his art supplies store in Denver. My grandmother never quite forgave him for the extravagance. I pored over Mathew Brady’s graphic photographs, read the articles, and happily accompanied my parents on trips to battlefields like Gettysburg, Antietam, and Balls Bluff. Twenty-year-old Private Samuel V. Isenberg, Company C, 125th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, my mothers’ great grandfather, saw action at Antietam and Chancellorsville. I watched Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War several times and attended a book signing where I got an autographed copy of his companion book. Burns included the role of “black” soldiers but as a minor theme.

When Robert J. Brugger, senior acquisitions editor for Johns Hopkins University Press, suggested a book summarizing the role of African American soldiers, or U.S. Colored Troops, as they became officially known, I saw an opportunity to delve into a Civil War topic of which I knew very little. Fortunately, I soon discovered that much had been written on the subject, and learned that John David Smith, a nationally recognized expert on the subject, was willing to lend his expertise.

What emerged was a sobering picture of entrenched racism coupled with a robust portrait of African Americans’ courage and determination. Many whites feared the retaliatory potentials of arming former slaves, were convinced they were afraid to fight, and derided offers of help from African Americans, slave and free, considering the rebellion “a white man’s war.” Some African Americans, however, at the risk of death—or at least a vicious whipping—if caught courageously slipped away from farms and plantations to Union lines and freedom. Others were kidnapped into service by zealous recruiters with quotas to fill. Still others found their way to Union camps with the help of abolitionists and the Underground Railway. Once President Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, authorizing African Americans to join the Union Army, army recruiters took over the recruitment process.

In camp, the immediate challenge confronting white line officers—and all were white—was to instill in the recruits, most of whom knew only subjugation at the hands of white men, the discipline, pride, skill, confidence, and manliness needed to become soldiers. How this transformation was accomplished is one of the most important pieces of the story.

African Americans proved their mettle in over forty major engagements even though they knew that if captured they, and their white officers—all of whom Jefferson Davis refused to consider as prisoners of war—faced almost certain execution.

Sadly, after successfully facing down one deterrent after another to their service and helping Lincoln to save the Union, the promise of freedom in exchange for service profusely offered by recruiters and officers alike to the 200,000 African Americans in blue was short lived. For a few years after the war ended African Americans held elected office and enjoyed other rights long denied them. But by the 1870’s, Jim Crow ruled the land. African Americans who did not serve, as well as those who did, passed away under his reign.

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Bob Luke is the co-author of Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops and author of The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball, also published by Johns Hopkins.

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