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Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era

by Richard M. Reid, University of North Carolina Press, 2008, $39.50

The Union recruited four black regiments from North Carolina. One fought with distinction, one served competently, one was deemed unreliable, and one labored for the Federals but never fought. That the fortunes of these four units encompass the full range of black military experience during the Civil War didn’t escape Canadian history professor Richard M. Reid, who has written a good niche history of typical black units. This is a densely researched account filled with precise details and anecdotes, including many that would fall to the blue pencil of a mainstream publisher’s editor anxious to keep the narrative moving.

Few in the Federal high command liked the idea of black solders, leaving enthusiastic volunteers, mostly civilian, to lead the earliest black regiments. And, except for a few surgeons and chaplains, all officers were white. As a result, the original black units performed best, as the famous 54th Massachusetts demonstrated. Once the small pool of young white male abolitionists ran out, however, officer quality declined, often precipitously. Reid points out that white enlisted men made up the major source of junior officers in black regiments. While the candidates were quizzed on their racial views, an ambitious private knew what he had to say.

Massachusetts Governor John Andrew began forming black state regiments soon after the Emancipation Proclamation. But only 40,000 blacks existed throughout the North—so when the supply of free blacks of military age quickly ran short, he turned to North Carolina where a dozen Massachusetts regiments were serving on Roanoke Island and along coastal areas captured by Burnside’s expedition in 1862. In the spring of 1863, the governor sent Brig. Gen. Edward Wild along with the black 55th Massachusetts as the “nest egg.” Wild is one of the minor heroes of black Civil War soldiering, an experienced officer who lost an arm at South Mountain and who assisted Andrew in organizing the Massachusetts units.

Recruitment of the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers—almost all escaped slaves—went fairly smoothly. Wild not only chose the officers himself but also commissioned them at whatever rank he felt appropriate. Even better, the regiment had several months of drill and rifle practice, so it entered service better trained than the regiments that followed. In July, the First abruptly transferred to South Carolina to reinforce the Yankees’ siege of Charleston, where the 54th Massachusetts performed its legendary, suicidal charge on Fort Wagner. Upon departing, the First took all early recruits for the Second and Third North Carolina regiments. The recruits never returned. The First also never returned, serving instead near Charleston and then in Florida. There it remained disciplined and performed well in combat, but, like all black units, it was required to spend too much time on fatigue duties.

Hampered by losing its first recruits, the fledgling Second North Carolina suffered another blow in August: a permanent transfer to Fortress Monroe in Virginia. With Wild occupied elsewhere and dogged by white commanders’ predilection to use black soldiers as laborers, the Second did not receive arms and equipment for months and underwent less training than its predecessor. Nevertheless, it did not disgrace itself during local raids or in the Army of the James’ feeble attempts to support Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Virginia campaign.

Also transferred up to Virginia, the Third North Carolina did not fill its ranks until 1864, but its men, too, kept busy as laborers. With even less training and shoddier arms than the Second, the Third also served in the Army of the James. But commanders considered it unreliable, so it saw little combat. The fourth and last regiment never left North Carolina and never fought.

During demobilization after the war, the high command continued to favor white regiments, which thus made up more than their share of occupation troops. Reid dutifully records the vicious Southern attitude toward freedmen, which many white commanders did little to ameliorate. Sympathetic to Southern sensibilities, they kept black units out of sight. By 1867 all had returned to civilian life.

Historians traditionally strain to find a silver lining in this cloud. True, black veterans returned to a racist society. However, some historians suggest, military discipline, interaction with sympathetic white officers and shared hardship provided them with self-confidence that proved useful in civilian life. Reid disagrees, pointing out that North Carolina recruits were almost all illiterate ex-slaves who left the army as penniless as when they enlisted. Postwar black elites were likely to have been either immigrants from the North or free, literate and middle-class Southerners be – fore the war. Black veterans were underrepresented.

The truth is that black battlefield sacrifices had little effect on white society. Few whites who despised blacks before the war changed their minds. The minority who believed in equality made some progress in postwar years, but their support evaporated with Reconstruction. The high command tended to assign black troops to out-of-the-way posts. White commanding officers often ended up in these posts even when black units fought bravely. Moreover, those Civil War generals most sympathetic to black soldiers— David Hunter, John Fremont, and Ben Butler—were universally considered incompetent commanders.

Freedom for Themselves is an academic book, packed with names, dates, and capsule biographies of individuals who appear only once, and an almost day-by-day account of troop training and movement, most of which doesn’t involve fighting. The end result, while not a page-turner, is an admirable addition to our knowledge of a cross-section of black regiments.


Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here