Thunder at the Gates

nolead begins The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America
By Douglas R. Egerton
Basic Books 448 pp. $29.99
Reviewed by Paul Jablow


nolead ends In 1945, as World War II was winding down, a laundry near a military base in Indiana refused to accept the clothing of black service members while taking that of German prisoners of war.

The servicemen were members of the Tuskegee Airmen, black aviators who had performed heroically in Europe while enduring the insults of Jim Crow off duty.

Anecdotes like these make Thunder at the Gates, Douglas R. Egerton's account of black Civil War regiments, all the more poignant - and maddening - to read.

His story of three Massachusetts regiments of what were then called "colored troops" is artfully told and wonderfully detailed, but it makes me wonder who thought up the phrase that redeemed America for the subtitle.

Some moviegoers have been introduced to the subject by the 1989 film Glory, which starred Matthew Broderick as Robert Gould Shaw, who led the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first black regiment, in a heroic but doomed assault on Confederate-held Fort Wagner, near Charleston, S.C.

What the film couldn't show was the complexity of political forces that put the regiment in the field - and how poorly its members were treated when they got there and in succeeding years.

The driving force behind the creation of the regiments was Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew, a strong abolitionist who defended fugitive slaves and provided legal help to John Brown after his raid on Harpers Ferry.

Not surprising, black leaders like Frederick Douglass assumed that if black troops fought well in the war, and the Union triumphed, they would be rewarded with full citizenship, or at least something closer to it.

Egerton, a professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., shows just how naive that hope was.

Though the 54th and its two companion regiments, the 55th Infantry and the 5th Cavalry, did win grudging respect from white counterparts who fought at their sides, other black soldiers were relegated to unglamorous support duties, as was largely the case in both World Wars.

They were also paid less, and, until close to the war's end, were not eligible for commissions: Shaw and their other commanders were, of course, white.

Black soldiers were also subject to harsher discipline.

"Twenty-one percent of all U.S. soldiers executed by the military were black," Egerton writes, "although by war's end, they comprised only 8 percent of the army. In every case where a black soldier was hanged for rape, the accuser was white."

And, of course, we're talking about the Union side here. South of the Mason-Dixon Line, skepticism blended with apoplexy. The Confederate policy was to execute rather than imprison any captured white officer who had led black troops.

Captured black soldiers who had been slaves were to be returned to their "owners," and captured free blacks were not eligible for prisoner exchanges until near the end of the war.

Shaw - killed at Fort Wagner - is known by the famous statue in his memory erected in 1897 in Boston. Some black soldiers did briefly hold positions of responsibility in Southern reconstruction governments before segregation returned with a vengeance.

But most had to settle for praise such as the New York Times editorial stating that "the darkies stand fire well amid the burning of shell."

Paul Jablow is a former Inquirer writer.