The Myth of the Black Union Soldier

Update: In my rush to finish the sources section at the end of the guest post I left out one important article by Carole Emberton, which has been incredibly influential on how I think about the connection between black Union soldiers, violence, and Reconstruction. “Only Murder Makes Men: Reconsidering the Black Military Experience,” Journal of the Civil War Era, 2, NO . 3 (2012).

Today I have a guest post at The Civil War Monitor’s “Front Lines Blog.” I’ve been meaning for some time to write a short essay about how United States Colored Troops have come to be remembered during the sesquicentennial. This is something that I can easily see expanding for my project on the sesquicentennial.

It’s hard to believe that 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the Hollywood movie Glory. Twenty-five years later it is also difficult to remember that for many Americans this was their first introduction to the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the broader story of African Americans and the Civil War. More than midway through the Civil War sesquicentennial, a very different picture confronts us. The story of black soldiers is front and center in a narrative that places slavery and emancipation at the center of our understanding of what the war was about and what it accomplished. The contributions of United States Colored Troops can be seen on the big screen, in plays and musicals, news articles, museum exhibits, on National Park Service battlefields and in the textbooks we use in our schools.

Click here for the rest of the essay.

6 responses... add one

Good essay. It is an important thing to address. Indeed, I can see parallels between the USCT and Native Americans. Popular memory seems to emphasize the crimes of their enemies while downplaying or not even addressing their own. The only error I found, and it is a minor one, is when you referred to “the election of the nation’s first black president.” Obama is only half African, half Caucasian (and related on his mother’s side to Jefferson Davis, ironically).

PS: I recently bought Barry Strauss’ study on Spartacus’ Slave Revolt. I wonder if you could discuss in some future post or essay the similarities between that war of antiquity and John Brown’s and Nat Turner’s insurrections, both in what really happened as well as how it has been remembered, and how it, or more specifically its memory, might have influenced abolitionists, like how you drew a comparison between Rezan Aslan’s biography of Jesus and Fox News’ reaction to it and the Lost Causers and the reality of the American Civil War.

Thanks, Ben. We can debate the details, but most Americans view Obama as the first black president.

I recently bought Barry Strauss’ study on Spartacus’ Slave Revolt. I wonder if you could discuss in some future post or essay the similarities between that war of antiquity and John Brown’s and Nat Turner’s insurrections…

I don’t know enough to write anything along those lines. Sorry.

The connection to Nat Turner is one that came to my mind almost immediately upon reading your essay. I think we have to see episodes like you describe as 1) retribution for the treatment of black soldiers at other battles (which as I am sure you recall, is what the first scene in Lincoln does) 2) the general increase in the war’s brutality in 1864-1865, and 3) a product of the desire of black troops to take the opportunity to mete out justice for the inhumanities they and their loved ones suffered in slavery. This last point is where I see the connection to Turner. I often have lively conversations with my students about whether he should be viewed as a hero, and almost always conclude that if we are to condemn him and his followers for their remorseless brutality, we have to in the very same breath condemn the institution that created that kind of brutal hatred. I think the same can be said here . . . and on both sides of the ledger (black soldier violence directed at whites, AND white southern violence inflicted upon black soldiers).

Hi Glenn. I tend to agree with you here. The cycle of racial violence that takes hold on battlefields by late 1863-64 must be understood as the product of fear, hatred, etc. on all sides. My point in the essay is that we tend to ignore one side, which I believe is a result of our tendency to hold up black soldiers as our war’s moral compass.

There is a broader problem at work, the reluctance of Americans to see our soldiers as people involved in crimes of war or grave human rights violations.

This reminds me of an anecdote that our professor of Intercultual Diversity told one day: a friend of his commented that Black people don’t feel bias against Whites. To which he responded, “Are you saying that Black people don’t feel the full range of human emotions?” That was a point to ponder!

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