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African American Soldier in the Civil War: USCT 1862-66

by Mark Lardas, Osprey Publishing, 2006, $17.95.

On the face of it, No. 114 in Osprey Publishing’s “Warrior” series, African American Soldier in the Civil War: USCT 1862-66, would read and look like any other study of uniforms, weapons and equipment in the Union Army during the Civil War. As author Mark Lardas makes clear in his concise yet comprehensive treatment, however, the difference between the U.S. Colored Troops and their white counterparts was more than skin deep.

From 1861-63, neither side was eager to acknowledge slavery as the chief economic motivation behind the states’ rights issue, and for different reasons neither army wanted black soldiers in the ranks. Southern cities such as New Orleans and Memphis formed units of free blacks to parade in front of visiting Europeans in hopes of encouraging British or French recognition of the Confederacy. However, the closest thing to serious combat New Orleans’ blacks saw was when they were issued worn-out muskets to cover the white soldiers as they abandoned the city in April 1862.

For much of the war, the only official roles that either government allowed blacks to play in their respective armies was as auxiliaries, servants, teamsters or cooks. Attitudes gradually changed as individual black servants and freemen showed their worth within the Confederate Army, but for the vast majority of African Americans who wanted to serve for the Union, the transition from “contraband” auxiliaries to fighting men was a slow, difficult process.

Once they were finally accepted, the enlistees had to serve in segregated units, generally federalized as U.S. Colored Infantry, because predominantly abolitionist Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as Kansas, were the only states that would acknowledge black regiments of their own. While they welcomed every chance for combat, despite a general Confederate tendency to kill any black prisoner in a blue uniform, the black troops also faced a struggle behind the lines to get equal pay and quality of rations from the government. All those factors, from the right to equal pay to the right to die in battle, were of vital importance to them because they signified acceptance as men and citizens of the nation for which they fought.

That background provides a context and provenance for the photographs and illustrations throughout the book, as well as the color illustrations by Peter Dennis that cover training, everyday life on campaign and noteworthy incidents in the African Americans’ war. These include their largely forgotten contribution to the Union victory at Honey Springs, Kan., and the slaughter of 200 black prisoners of war in the Fort Pillow Massacre. The uniforms of the USCT troops may have been standard Union issue, but that itself was regarded by the blacks (who rejected offers to receive special regimental uniforms in other colors) as a mark of respect earned in blood. If their blue uniforms stood out, it was because of the care with which they maintained them, the percentage of troops who had themselves photographed wearing them and the number of veterans who kept and treasured them after the war ended.

Packing a wealth of detail, personal accounts and numerous instances of valor in battle that go beyond the ill-fated assault on Battery Wagner commemorated in the film Glory. African American Soldier in the Civil War makes an outstanding primer on its subject for the Civil War scholar, as well as a useful reference source for a reenactor wishing to capture the USCT experience.

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.