I was recently asked by an academic press for my opinion on whether a new edition of Noah Andre Trudeau’s book Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 should be published. Below is my report.
Noah Andre Trudeau published Like Men of War in 1998. It is a narrative driven and comprehensive history of United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War and the early period of Reconstruction. The book was published during a period of growing interest in the Black experience during the Civil War, including military participation and the broader story of emancipation. This was in large part due to the popularity of the Hollywood movie “Glory,” which told the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
There were relatively few studies focusing on the Black military experience available at this time. James McPherson’s The Negro’s Civil War was first published in 1965 and Joseph Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers was published in 1991. In addition, a small number of histories written by African-American writers and veterans of the war had been published by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Trudeau was well positioned to write a military history of Black Civil War soldiers given his earlier books on the war in Virginia in 1864-65. Like Men of War covers every major battle and skirmish that involved USCTs, from Virginia to Missouri to Texas. It includes a very helpful overview of the political debates and the evolution of the military conflict that led to the enlistment of Black soldiers. The book also explores the role of Black regiments as an occupation force in different parts of the South during the early period of Reconstruction. Trudeau examines the challenges these men faced securing pensions and their experiences as veterans. Like Men of War also embraced the burgeoning field of Civil War memory in its analysis of why the stories of Black soldiers were largely forgotten throughout parts of the nation by the early twentieth century.
Readers that were new to this history were also likely exposed for the first time to the racism experienced by Black soldiers and the horrific violence that resulted in the massacre of many of these men at places like Fort Pillow, Tennessee and the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia. The book’s narrative structure and Trudeau’s reputation within the Civil War community guaranteed a wide readership.
Certainly, the scholarly field focused on the Black military experience has expanded significantly over the past few decades. In fact, every aspect of this story has been addressed to one extent or another. Most notably, numerous regimental studies have been published, which have deepened our understanding of the relationship between Black soldiers and their white officers as well as the social profile of the men who served. Some of the most important work in this field by historians such as James Mendez and Holly A. Pinheiro has focused on the relationship between the men in the ranks and their families on the home front. The lives of Black veterans have also received considerable attention by historians Barbara Gannon and Donald Shaffer.
A testament to the importance of Like Men of War can be seen in the fact that it continues to be cited by historians. Twenty-five years later this is still the only accessible military history of the Black Civil War experience. [William Dobak’s book Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862-1867 was published in 2011, but the narrative is incredibly dense and will not be accessible to the general reader.]
One of the main reasons why Like Men of War is still embraced by historians can be seen in the bibliography. Trudeau dug deep into published sources and archival collections. All of his books reflect careful research. His use of archival collections and newspapers such as The Liberator, Christian Recorder, and Anglo-African guaranteed that the relatively few Black voices available would help inform the narrative. I’ve made use of this book (especially the bibliography) for numerous projects.
The narrative runs chronologically, which is entirely appropriate. This traditional approach highlights change over time, not just in terms of the soldier experience, but how their participation transformed the war and how it resulted in both the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery. I have no doubt that this book will be embraced by a new generation of Civil War buffs and students of history. As to whether the book will be used in undergraduate or graduate courses, I am less certain. As has already been pointed out, this is a narrative-driven study and college instructors tend to use more analytical studies.
The question of whether this book needs to be revised is a tricky one. As has been pointed out already, this book was intended as a traditional military history of the Black Civil War experience and in that respects, it holds up very well. I would like to see an expert in the field write an introduction for the second edition that situates the book within the latest scholarship.
There are a number of places where more recent scholarship challenges and/or expands upon Trudeau’s conclusions. For example, Trudeau’s claim that Black veterans experienced increased discrimination in GAR camps by the 1890s has been challenged by Barbara Gannon in her book The Won Cause (2011). Claims about motivations to enlist, enthusiasm for enlistment within the Black community, and the experience of camp life can also be placed in context with more recent scholarship.
In conclusion, I firmly believe that a new edition of Like Men of War will be welcomed by historians and general readers alike.