Interview:African American Soldiers During the Civil War: Interview with Author Bob Luke

Soldiering for Freedom by Bob Luke and John David Smith

Johns Hopkins University Press recently published Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops written by Bob Luke and John David Smith. After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, African Americans volunteered to fight for the Union. Soldiering for Freedom seeks to explain how these men were recruited, used, treated during the Civil War.

In addition to writing Soldiering for Freedom, Luke also wrote The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball. His co-author Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at University of North Carolina and the author of Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and"The American Negro."

Here is our interview with Bob Luke.

What drew you initially to the story of black Union soldiers? How did you first start on this project?

The Civil War fascinated me long before I co-authored the book. 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 poured over Mathew Brady’s graphic photographs, read the articles, and happily accompanied my parents on trips to battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Balls Bluff. Twenty-year old Private Samuel W. Isenberg, 1st Regiment, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, (14th Reserves), my mothers’ great grandfather, saw action at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. 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, for whom I’d written a book about the Baltimore Elite Giants, a Negro league baseball team, suggested a book summarizing the role of African American soldiers, U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) as they became officially known, I saw an opportunity to delve into a Civil War topic of which I knew little. Fortunately, I soon discovered much had been written on the subject, and that John David Smith, a nationally recognized expert on the subject, was willing to lend his expertise.

Most historians labor in solitude, but you teamed with a partner. What are the advantages to having a partner to work with on a book like this?

John David Smith, Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and author of books on African Americans in the mid to late Nineteenth century, brought instant expertise to my research findings. He quickly pointed out areas of the text that needed work, supplied quotes that enlivened the text, and brought the footnotes into acceptable form. He saved time in the fact checking process, insured a level of credibility that may have been difficult to achieve without his involvement, and provided a comprehensive bibliography. In addition, John David supplied much appreciated companionship to what could have been a lonely task indeed. Though we had not met and collaborated solely by e-mail, we soon fell into a simpatico rhythm of electronic back and forth.

The movie Glory about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was released back in 1989 to critical acclaim. Were you ever concerned that you needed to address the many aspects of the movie in your book (accurate or inaccurate) or did you feel as though you could tell this story in a fairly fresh way?

Glory deserved, in my opinion, its critical acclaim as a movie. It graphically portrayed African Americans’ sacrifice, suffering, bravery, achievements, and white officer on black recruit cruelty. In so doing it presented not only a compelling story but brought attention to the then lesser known role of African American Union soldiers. The movie did, however, take many liberties with the regiment’s history, and by extension, with the history of the U.S. Colored Troops. To have discussed the accurate points and tried to correct the liberties would have unnecessarily focused too much attention on one regiment and distracted the readers, many of whom are college students who may not be familiar with the movie, from the book’s main theme - the various ways in which African American soldiers were recruited, trained, and deployed. I mentioned the movie only in passing. As a general rule, I don’t look for history at the movie theater.

Company E, 4th US Colored Troops, 1865

Once the Proclamation was issued, the Union began recruiting black troops. Did blacks begin volunteering to serve in the military before recruiting centers were even established? How were free blacks and former slaves recruited into army units? The recruitment of African American soldiers was at differing times and places legal, illegal, haphazard, voluntary, systematic, and coercive. Prior to Lincoln’s Final Emancipation of January 1, 1863, slaves by the thousands, individually as well as families, fled farms and plantations to join the army and win freedom for themselves. Males worked as laborers while the women cooked and laundered. In another pre-Proclamation effort, generals and politicians, notably in the Carolinas and Kansas, unbeknownst to Lincoln, promised slaves their freedom if they would enlist. Lincoln promptly voided the promises. Immediately following the Proclamation, which gave the army authority to arm African Americans, a group of prominent abolitionists led by industrialist George Stearns and including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, and Julia Ward Howe raised funds to support a network of more than 100 black recruiters. They worked the Mississippi Valley, the northern states, Canada, and the mid-west as far as St. Louis. The recruiters, who received two dollars for every able-bodied man they delivered, made all manner of promises, most of which were never kept. Many of these recruits formed the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries.

As the need for Union recruits became ever more pressing, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton authorized Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to mount a recruiting campaign throughout the Mississippi Valley. Acting with Lincoln’s full authority, Thomas raised over 70,000 black troops. He ordered Union officers to accept all blacks who were streaming into their camps. Thomas gave speeches and set up recruiting centers. Some recruiters sought volunteers. Others visited farms and plantations often ordering the men at gun point to “volunteer,” dragging the reluctant out from under beds, and rounding up those who fled to the woods to avoid conscription. Private citizens continued to play a major role, again in the North. Poet, journalist, and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant led a group of prominent New York City men to form the New York Association for Colored Volunteers. The association attracted enough volunteers from throughout the state, aided by the promise of a three hundred dollar enlistment bonus, to form a regiment. Philadelphia merchant, Thomas Webster, exhorting blacks to “forget the past” and promising them the “acclaim from all for their valor,” helped recruit three regiments from that city. John Mercer Langston, a recent African American Oberlin graduate, having seen his offer to form a black regiment rebuffed in 1862 by Ohio’s Governor David Todd, spearheaded the formation of a black regiment once Todd realized he had no choice but to supply an African American regiment from the Buckeye state.

It is widely known that black soldiers were often treated poorly by fellow white soldiers and officers. It what ways were black troops discriminated against?

When the war began most whites felt it was “a white man’s war.” Congressmen publicly derided African Americans’ willingness and ability to fight. The governors of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Connecticut spurned offers by blacks to enlist. The prospect of blacks in arms enraged and scared many whites, especially slaveholders. Blacks, free or slave, at the time were not even considered to be citizens due to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling in 1857.

Once in the army, they were confined to segregated regiments all of whose line officers were white. They received less pay than white soldiers. Protesting the inequity cost Sergeant William Walker his life by firing squad. Until the last two years of the war most were assigned “fatigue duty”, various forms of manual labor, freeing white soldiers to do the fighting. When they did see action they faced enslavement or execution if captured. Jefferson Davis considered captured black troops, and their white officers, to be traitors rather than prisoners of war; a status Jefferson accorded white Union soldiers. Confederate troops murdered many at the battle of Fort Pillow after they had surrendered.

The War Department often issued smooth bore muskets that lacked the accuracy of the standard issue rifle to African American soldiers. Many were thrown into battle with little or no training. Many who did receive training experienced pistol whippings, verbal threats, blows with the flat of a sword or fist, and being hung by the thumbs from many, but not all, white officers. Some favored the use of rewards such as a two day pass for the regiment’s most accurate rifleman or a small medal to members of a regiment’s company who performed best in drill. White soldiers tried to scare black recruits by telling them they’d be shipped to Cuba or put on the front lines of every battle. In spite of it all, about 180,000 African Americans served in the army while about 20,000 saw service in the navy.

How did black units perform in combat during the war? Did their performance convince Union commanders to alter how they were utilized?

African American troops took part in 449 fights, the majority of them minor engagements and skirmishes. In all engagements, however, small or large in scope, they demonstrated courage and ferocity in combat. Knowledge of what awaited them if captured fueled their intensity. Their commanders at first used them to poke holes in enemy lines. More often than not they succeeded in breaking through enemy positions while making a dent in officers’ skepticism of their worth. One officer wrote to his wife, “I confess I am surprised at the dash and courage of these men. I have never felt sure of them before and even now I fear they would not have that steadiness under fire that many [whites] have but for a charge they cannot be beat.” Later in the war they took part in large-scale offensives in such battles as Fort Hudson and Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana; Olustee, Florida; the Battles of the Crater and New Market Heights outside of Richmond, Virginia and the Battle of Nashville. There they proved to be steady under fire even while taking heavy losses. Following the Battle of Nashville, Colonel Rueben D. Massey said of them, “Death had known no distinction of color, nor had Valor, for the black’s were as near the enemy’s lines as were the whites.”

Were there any situations when the treatment of black soldiers improved? If so, why?

Treatment of African American soldiers by the Union remained relatively unchanged and shoddy throughout the war. Congress did not allow equal pay for all black soldiers until just a month before the war ended. While many attained non-commissioned officer status, none were selected as line officers for USCT regiments. Those who protested their treatment often encountered a court martial, a jail sentence or worse. Their performance in battle, however, did change the opinion of them for the better on the part of many whites. Eighteen African American soldiers and four seamen won a Medal of Honor. In a final tribute to their contributions toward saving the Union, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton selected the 45th USCT to be part of the honor guard for Lincoln’s second inaugural address in March 1865. A month later he chose the 22nd USCT to lead Lincoln’s funeral procession as it neared the U. S. Capitol. Few whites in 1861 could have imagined those honors being accorded to African American soldiers and sailors.

How would you recommend using this book in a class? What will students be able to take away from reading your book?

I could see the book in a class on African American history or the Civil War. It’s a historical hors d’oeuvre, 107 pages excluding footnotes and bibliography. Students would gain an overview of race relations in mid-nineteenth century in general and during the Civil War in particular. The bibliography provides many avenues for more in-depth reading. [[Category:History Interviews]