Nothing Worth Reading Since Benjamin Quarles?

USCTYesterday I caught a panel discussion on race and the challenges of teaching Civil War history from a recent conference at Wake Forest, which aired on CSPAN. I didn’t find the panel discussion to be particularly interesting, but what struck me was a comment from Hari Jones, who argued that nothing that has been written about black Civil War soldiers since the publication of Benjamin Quarles’s The Negro in the Civil War (1953) is worth reading.

I don’t mind admitting that I find that to be an absurd statement. I’ve read large sections of the book and it is worth looking at, but Quarles does not address the kinds of questions that have been explored by historians in recent years nor did he have access to as broad a range of archival materials. With that in mind I give you just a few of the books that have enriched my understanding of the subject.

Stephen V. Ash, Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War.

Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers.

Richard M. Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era.

Donald R. Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans.

John David Smith ed., Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era.

Keith P. Wilson, Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers During the Civil War.

That’s just off the top of my head. What would you add to the list.

14 comments… add one
  • London John Jan 28, 2014 @ 12:17

    Is this Hari Jones the curator who more or less tells off a young African-American woman researcher for using sources he didn’t approve in a video you posted some months ago? If so I would have thought that by his principles The Black Phalanx was the only legitimate source, being SFAIK the only book by an actual African-American veteran.

  • JW Phillips Jan 28, 2014 @ 9:50

    I would say that based upon the rememberances and accounts of the Gettysburg Reunion of 1913 that the poignant aspect of this event was the commonality that 55,000 veterans shared in their memories and experiences 50 years after an event that separated them from those who did not personally go through the hell of battle engagement in that war. Additionally, the tensions between the North and South had arguably abated more at that time than moving forward when the resurgence of the KKK took place post Knights of Mary Phagan and the national debuts “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance.” As for Wilson’s comments at Gettysburg, they were directed toward the resurgence and the unity of the United States, and minimized racial differences. Wilson’s views on race asserted themselves in more matter of fact ways, such as in the executive order to segregate the civil service in the U.S. Postal Service, and during our entry in to WWI in the Armed Forces. I have never seen a signed directive from him or advisory requesting African Americans not attend the Gettysburg Reunion.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jan 28, 2014 @ 5:10

    “Just Hari being Hari” is an understatement. It’s really a shame because he’s a very smart man and he’s done a great job with the African-American Civil War Museum in DC.
    But my problem with him is that he seems to think that no one else is right about the history on Black Civil War soldiers but him. He’s argued that the 54th Massachusetts was “the most literate regiment,” Black or White, North or South, of the Civil War; and I’ve heard he’s claimed that the bulk of the regiment were college graduates. As many know, the real 54th was much more educated than they were depicted in “Glory;” but no way to prove his literacy claim, unless you could verify the literacy rate of every single Civil War regiment. And as far as most of the men being college graduates, I’ve never heard that before anywhere.

  • London John Jan 28, 2014 @ 1:23

    Last year I enjoyed Race and Radicalism in the Union Army by Mark A Lause. This is not exclusively about Black troops but has a lot about their role in the (somewhat forgotten?) Army of the Frontier in Kansas, the Indian Territory and Arkansas. It’s also good on the Civil War within the Cherokee nation, IMO.
    The blurb is quite an accuratedescription of the contents:

    “the efforts of radical followers of John Brown to construct a triracial portion of the Federal Army of the Frontier. Mobilized and inspired by the idea of a Union that would benefit all, black, Indian, and white soldiers fought side by side, achieving remarkable successes in the field. ….
    Focusing on the men and women who supported Brown in territorial Kansas, Lause examines the impact of abolitionist sentiment on relations with Indians and the crucial role of nonwhites in the conflict. Through this experience, Indians, blacks, and whites began to see their destinies as interdependent, and Lause discusses the radicalizing impact of this triracial Unionism upon the military course of the war in the upper Trans-Mississippi.”

    • Kevin Levin Jan 28, 2014 @ 2:02

      That’s a book that I still need to read. Thanks.

  • Wallace Hettle Jan 27, 2014 @ 15:04

    1953? I disagree, but I prefer to stay away from internet Quarrels. 🙂

  • Gdbrasher Jan 27, 2014 @ 14:31

    Huh? Quarles is a pretty good starting point, but this is a mind boggling statement. Let me add a personal favorite to the list that does not get much attention inside the academic community: Noah Trudeau’s Like Men of War.

  • Chris Evans Jan 27, 2014 @ 14:26

    I would also add ‘Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865’ by Noah Andre Trudeau from 1998 that does a wonderful job covering the battles and skirmishes that Black troops were in. Also, has some excellent maps of actions that are almost never mapped in any other sources.


  • Jaime Martinez Jan 27, 2014 @ 14:08

    I was at that conference. The list of absurd things he said along those lines is quite long–and provoked a very pointed response from Ira Berlin at the start of his keynote.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2014 @ 14:13

      My personal favorite was his claim that Woodrow Wilson ordered GAR camps not to send black members to the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion. I have yet to find any evidence that Wilson ever issued such an order. Barbara Gannon reminded me that even if he did it is likely that the GAR would have just ignored it. This is after HJ went after historians for their general lack of understanding and outright misstatements. 🙂

  • Emmanuel Dabney Jan 27, 2014 @ 13:27

    I didn’t watch Hari’s talk but I think he would also know the titles you’ve mentioned above.

    I’ll add:

    The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois: The Story of the Twenty-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry by Edward A. Miller, Jr.

    A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th United States Colored Infantry, 1863 –1866 by Edward G. Longacre.

    A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters From African American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865, edited by Edwin S. Redkey.

    Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith.

    The Won Cause by Barbara Gannon.

    The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster by James K. Bryant.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2014 @ 13:33

      All good choices.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Jan 27, 2014 @ 13:25

    That’s just Hari being Hari. One might start with Dudley Taylor Cornish’s The Sable Arm (1956), which was way ahead of its time.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2014 @ 13:32

      Agreed on both counts. It’s not the first time that I’ve heard Hari say this, but I still don’t know why he is so adamant about it.

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