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Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers

by Joseph T. Glatthaar
Free Press, 370 pp., $24.95

The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War

by Iver Bernstein
Oxford University Press, 363 pp., $29.95

Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War

by Michael Fellman
Oxford University Press, 331 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Social history during the past two decades has become the liveliest field of American history. Historians have been using evidence about class, race, ethnicity, and gender to gain insight into Americans’ everyday lives—their work and leisure, their culture and ideology, their relations with one another and with the political and economic systems under which they have lived. From that research have come new perspectives that have increased our understanding of the American past—especially the past lives of blacks, women, and blue-collar workers.

For the most part, warfare has been excepted from social history. Narratives of campaigns and battles and of political leadership remained the dominant themes of histories about America’s wars—including its bloodiest and most consequential, the Civil War. But in recent years military historians have discovered the value of social history, while social historians have become aware of the enormous impact of war on people and institutions.1 The Civil War in particular mobilized virtually the entire population in an all-out struggle for the survival of conflicting versions of Confederate or American nationalism, and for the preservation or destruction of slavery. It was a war fought by the most literate soldiers in history to that time, and in a society with a free and vigorous press. Millions of young men for the first time left their families for a long time, conscious of taking part in a great historical drama, which they recorded in diaries and in uncensored letters home.

During the wars of the twentieth century, army authorities censored soldiers’ letters and discouraged diary keeping. Thus the American Civil War was in many ways the best-documented war in history. The letters and diaries of participants are an unparalleled source for the perceptions, ideas, and behavior of ordinary Americans in a war that transformed their society and altered the direction of the nation. The more imaginative social historians of warfare have used these sources recently to produce exciting work that tells us much about the impact of the Civil War on ordinary Americans who fought the war and in turn helped to shape its consequences.2

The three books under review provide excellent examples of these developments. Perhaps the most timely of the three is Forged in Battle, published at the same time and dealing with the same subject as the movie Glory, which has been a critical and popular success. Joseph Glatthaar, the author of a previous book on the soldiers in William T. Sherman’s army, has drawn on letters, diaries, and memoirs (mostly by white officers) as well as official documents for his account of the 178,000 black soldiers and their 7,000 white officers in the Union army. It is a story of the moral and physical courage of whites who risked social stigma in the North to become officers in “nigger regiments,” and risked execution by Confederates for inciting slave insurrections. It is a story also of courage by black soldiers, most of them former slaves, who risked much to join the army, and faced the same threat of execution if captured.

Glatthaar describes the government’s unjust and discriminatory treatment of black soldiers in pay (until 1864 black soldiers were paid less than whites), promotion, medical care, and the disproportionate employment of black units as labor battalions and in other menial rear-echelon assignments. An important theme in his book (as in the film Glory) is the campaign by black soldiers and their officers to get the opportunity to fight. Only by proving themselves in combat could blacks overcome the stereotypes of inferiority and prove their “manhood.” They proved it in several battles when they got the chance, but that chance remained limited by army policies that kept most black units serving in garrisons and working on fatigue details. Thus their rate of death in combat was only one third that of white Union soldiers, while their mortality rate from disease was twice as great.

Nevertheless, the courage and effectiveness of several black units in combat won increasing if sometimes grudging respect from initially skeptical or hostile whites. One white soldier wrote in 1864:

The copperheads of the North need not complain of them being placed on an equal footing with the white soldiers, since the white soldier himself does not complain. After a man has fought two years he is willing that any thing shal[l] fight for the purpose of ending the war. We have become to[o] familiar with hardships to refuse to see men fight merely because their color is black.

A white officer added: “The truth is they have fought their way into the respect of all the army.” This was an exaggeration; many white soldiers retained their prejudices. But others were converted by what The New York Times described in 1864 as the “prodigious revolution which the public mind everywhere is experiencing.”

Forged in Battle is by no means the first study of black soldiers in the Civil War; several previous books have told important parts of that story. But it uses more of the soldiers’ letters and diaries—including rare material from black soldiers—and concentrates more intensely on black–white relations within these regiments than any other study. Glatthaar’s thesis is expressed by the title: loyalty, friendship, and respect among white officers and black soldiers were fostered by the mutual dangers they faced in combat. This was not universally true, to be sure. Some officers had gone into black units for promotion or other self-serving motives; many of these retained their racist attitudes toward the soldiers they commanded. But most officers probably shared the attitude expressed by a captain in a letter to his wife:

A great many [white people] have the idea that the entire negro race are vastly their inferiors—a few weeks of calm unprejudiced life here would disabuse them I think—I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those (many of those) who would condemn them to a life of brutal degradation.

In trying to show there was growing respect between blacks and whites, though, Glatthaar succumbs to the fashionable practice of condemning all whites as racist. “Prior to the war,” he writes of the men who became officers in black regiments, “virtually all of them held powerful racial prejudices” that were subsequently modified by experience. Powerful racial prejudices? That was not true of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, or Robert Gould Shaw, or Norwood P. Hallowell, or many other abolitionists and sons of abolitionists who became officers in black regiments.

Indeed, the contrary was true; they had spent much of their lives fighting against the race prejudice endemic in American society, sometimes at the risk of their careers and even their lives. That is why they jumped at the chance to help launch an experiment with black soldiers which they hoped would help African-Americans achieve freedom and postwar civil equality. Perhaps by modern absolutist standards of racial egalitarianism (which few could meet today), these men harbored some mildly racist or paternalistic feelings. But to call these “powerful racial prejudices” is to indulge in what William Manchester has called “generational chauvinism—judging past eras by the standards of the present.”3

Race is the analytical category that counts most for Glatthaar; in Iver Bernstein’s study of the New York draft riots, the class feelings of the rioters are central while race and ethnicity are seen as less important. The worst mob violence in American history took place during the four days of rioting in New York City in 1863, although the death toll of 120 should be compared with the 11,000 soldiers killed and mortally wounded at Gettysburg two weeks earlier. The riots exposed severe stresses in Northern urban society, but, contrary to Bernstein’s view, these stresses may have run along the lines of race and ethnicity more than along those of class. The rioters were mostly Irish Catholic immigrants (and their children); they mainly attacked the members of New York’s small black population. For a year, Democratic leaders had been telling their Irish constituents that the wicked Black Republicans were waging the war to free the slaves who would come North and take away the jobs of Irish workers. The use of black stevedores as scabs in a recent strike by Irish dockworkers made this charge seem plausible. The prospect of being drafted to fight to free the slaves made the Irish even more receptive to demogogic rhetoric.

The provisions in the Union conscription law that allowed a drafted man to avoid service by hiring a substitute or paying a $300 commutation fee gave an added edge of class bitterness to the controversy, producing the slogan of “Rich Man’s War but Poor Man’s Fight.” In actual practice this slogan proved untrue. Unskilled workers and Irish-Americans were proportionately under-represented in the Union army. Draft insurance societies and appropriations by city councils or political machines to pay the commutation fee of any drafted man who did not want to go enabled poor men to buy their way out of the draft almost as readily as rich men.

Nevertheless, the draft became a hated symbol of everything the working-class population of New York disliked about the war. In the riots they demolished draft offices and other federal property, burned black neighborhoods and the Colored Orphan Asylum; they lynched a dozen black men, attacked the premises of the New York Times and New York Tribune (both Republican), and sacked the homes of leading Republicans and abolitionists. In the end most of those killed were not blacks or abolitionists but rioters, shot down by police and by troops rushed to New York from Gettysburg.

Iver Bernstein tells the story of these awful events succinctly in the early pages of his book. But that is not his main purpose, and for a detailed account of the riots one must still read Adrian Cook’s The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863.4 Bernstein’s aim is to use the riots as a means of understanding “the intricate and often obscure processes that gave rise to modern urban America.” Unfortunately, his argument is also intricate and often obscure. It reaches back to the 1850s to analyze the workers’ quest for security, status, and power in New York’s economy and polity. Workers were divided by skill or craft, and sometimes by belonging to different ethnic groups, but according to Bernstein, they sought consolidation and class unity in the face of the capitalist transformation that was eroding old skills and values. The capitalist elite was also divided, partly between older merchants and bankers, with ties to the South and to foreign mercantile houses on one side and to the rising industrialists on the other. Most of the new industrialists were Republicans, with strong ties to the national administration during the Civil War. Many of the mercantile elite were Democrats. During the riots they took a “soft” position toward the mobs, hoping to calm the violence through persuasion and selective repression. The Republican industrialists—whose property was often the target of rioters—took a “hard” position, calling for martial law and a shoot-on-sight policy. Bernstein views the riots as a climatic moment in the contest between workers and the Republican industrialists. The war, the draft, and ethnic and racial hatreds were merely the catalyst that sparked the violence.

  1. 1

    Richard H. Kohn, “The Social History of the American Soldier: A Review and Prospectus for Research,” American Historical Review, 86 (1981), pp. 553–567, Maris A. Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations,” Journal of American History, 76 (1989), pp. 34–58.

  2. 2

    Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (New York University Press, 1985); Earl J. Hess, Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union (New York University Press, 1988); Randall C. Jimerson, The Private Civil War: Popular Thought During the Sectional Conflict (Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (Free Press, 1987); Reid Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences (Viking, 1988).

  3. 3

    New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1990, p. 33.

  4. 4

    University Press of Kentucky, 1974.

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