Among the revolutionary events that transformed the nineteenth-century world, none was so dramatic in its human consequences as the abolition of chattel slavery. Slavery and emancipation have always been central questions for American historians and much of the best historical work of the 1960s and 1970s concentrated on the South’s “peculiar institution.” More recently, attention has tended to shift from slavery and the causes of the Civil War to the effects of abolition and the events of the post-Civil War period. In part, this simply reflects the need for a breathing space to assimilate the remarkable studies of slavery during the past two decades. But it is also inspired by a recognition that, in many ways, American society has not yet fully accepted the consequences of the emancipation.

The Civil War and the drama of emancipation are well suited for sweeping narrative accounts. Page Smith’s Trial by Fire, covering the Civil War and Reconstruction, is the fifth installment in his multi-volume history of the United States. Whatever one’s assessment of Smith’s enterprise, the ambitious scope of his undertaking cannot be denied. Like John B. McMaster, Edward Channing, Ellis P. Oberholtzer, and other virtually forgotten chroniclers of our national experience, Smith seeks to combine the latest findings of academic scholarship with contemporary evidence in a book that will be accessible to a broad public.

As Gordon Wood observed not long ago in these pages, narrative history has lately had something of a revival.* The reason is clear. Quantitative methods and social science models changed the kinds of questions historians asked but they too often resulted in books consisting largely of accumulations of data, often on narrow, even trivial subjects. The result was a divorce of academic history from a general audience which, not surprisingly, preferred narratives and biographies to analytical studies of data.

Some might say the strengths and weaknesses of Smith’s approach are inherent in conventional narrative history itself. At his best, Smith writes lucidly; he shows command of the available sources, and has an eye for the revealing incident. For example, he tells at length the story of Williams Middleton, a member of one of the most prominent planter families of South Carolina, who was put on “trial” by a mock court of his former slaves as the Civil War drew to a close. The blacks weighed Middleton’s past severities and kindnesses and seriously debated executing him before finally releasing him. Through such events, Smith is able to capture both the grim reality of the Civil War and the genuine drama of the postwar years, when many blacks and whites briefly shared a vision of a New South rising from the ashes of slavery and based on racial harmony.

As in his four previous volumes, Smith writes well about specific episodes but falters when it comes to broader historical patterns. As the book rambles among the mountains of evidence, the author seems desperately to be searching for a unifying theme. Chronology provides the only organization for his account, and he too often falls back on crude psychological analyses to account for events. General George B. McClellan was “in Freudian terms, a classic anal retentive,” President Andrew Johnson “paranoid,” with a “touch of madness.” The interdependence of master and slave produced, he writes, a “classic love-hate relationship,” and, on the part of the black, “a servile mentality,” an assumption “that the white man was his superior in every respect.” This kind of simplification allows Smith to avoid confronting the actual motives—whether political, ideological, or material—of McClellan or Johnson and to be drastically reductive about the complex relations between masters and slaves.

Throughout this and his other volumes, Smith writes as if he were a courageous iconoclast, standing apart from the accumulated mythologies and historical misconceptions of his academic colleagues. He dispenses with footnotes and bibliography while claiming to be presenting a radical revision of the standard view of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This refusal to credit the work of others may be good salesmanship, but it is misleading, not to say uncharitable. For Smith’s real accomplishment lies not in originality of approach or conclusions but in his ability to summarize for nonspecialists the revised views of the war and especially of Reconstruction that have emerged during the last twenty years.

Few modern scholars still believe that Reconstruction was a sordid period characterized above all by governmental corruption, Radical Republican vindictiveness, and black political supremacy in the defeated South. When Smith emphasizes the essentially idealistic motives of the Radicals, the positive achievements of the Reconstruction regimes, and the white South’s intransigence, which forced upon the North a commitment to protect the basic rights of the former slaves, he is simply following the main lines of current interpretation.

So too there is little original in Smith’s emphasis on the activities of blacks during the Civil War. In one sense, Trial by Fire shows that the recent emphasis on black history has produced a revolution in historical understanding. Confined until the 1960s to the black colleges, the study of the black past has now achieved scholarly legitimacy at scores of universities, and this has transformed the way American history is taught and written.


The earlier narratives of such historians as Channing, McMaster, and Oberholtzer dealt with blacks, if at all, primarily as a “problem” for American society. Smith, like most other contemporary historians, makes them central. He arrives at his positive assessment of Reconstruction by placing blacks at the heart of the story. “It is bitter to have to say,” he concludes, “that American blacks have not yet regained the power and influence that they enjoyed in the Reconstruction Era.” Like most modern scholars, Smith believes the tragedy of Reconstruction was not that it was attempted but that it failed.

When Smith concentrates on the experience of ordinary Americans, moreover, he reflects the concerns of the “new social history,” with its emphasis on the historically “inarticulate”—women, blacks, laborers, and others who were excluded from traditional accounts. While the increasing attention given to such neglected groups has been invigorating for the study of the past, it has also fragmented modern historical writing; the lack of coherence of Smith’s narrative can be seen as a reflection of the larger failure of the “new” history to produce anything approaching a synthesis of its findings.

Indeed the recent emphasis on social history poses serious difficulties for the narrative writer in search of the contemporary evidence with which to convey the everyday experience of “anonymous” Americans during the Civil War period. Smith draws heavily on the letters and diaries of contemporaries, including the often vivid letters of soldiers who fought in the war; but some of the documents he relies on pose problems. For example, the wartime secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, whose diary is quoted at length, was an opinionated ideologue with little real insight into the revolutionary changes around him. The Charles Colcock Jones family of Georgia, whose letters, published as The Children of Pride, Smith also cites extensively, displayed little comprehension of the underlying values and behavior of their slaves. Because he relies primarily on published accounts, moreover, Smith is able to present the responses of whites to the wrenching transformations of the Civil War era far more fully than those of blacks. He can quote Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, but not the ordinary free black; white commanders of black troops but not the black soldier himself. The kind of rich documentary record that exists for whites has not yet been produced for black history.

Fortunately, that situation is about to change. Contrary to what might be assumed, the problem confronting historians who seek to understand how ordinary blacks experienced the Civil War and emancipation is not that there are too few documents, but that there are so many. Buried in the National Archives are collections so vast that no single scholar can ever hope to examine them all, and until recently little serious work had been done on them. Among the millions of available documents are the records of the Union and Confederate armies, the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Treasury Department, the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, and other government agencies. Along with innumerable routine reports and bureaucratic forms exist hundreds of thousands of letters, affidavits, and other contemporary observations by former slaves. Taken together, they form an unmatched chronicle of the social revolution known as emancipation.

During the past few years, Ira Berlin and his colleagues in the Freedmen and Southern Society Project have systematically been working on the National Archives’s holdings. The Black Military Experience is the first in a seven-volume documentary record that will appear during the 1980s. (Somewhat confusingly, the sequence is divided into several series, some of them subdivided into volumes; the first book is designated as “Series II” of the overall project.) Having examined perhaps two million documents, many of them untouched since they were deposited in their file boxes a century ago, the editors first selected about forty thousand for possible publication, and then whittled that group down to the four thousand or so that will appear in print. (The remainder will be made available on microfilm, along with a guide and index.) To judge from this first product, the result is a series that will transform the ways historians think about slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation.

Although the first volume includes documents written by whites—military commanders, politicians, plantation superintendents, former slaveholders, and others—it largely consists of the testimony of blacks. One useful result is to further discredit the notion that ordinary people were “inarticulate,” either in the sense that a record of their experience did not survive, or that they were unable to express themselves. The immediacy of this material, written at the very moment of emancipation, makes it far more valuable for historians than the “slave narratives” gathered by the WPA during the Depression and now widely used to document the black perception of slavery and emancipation. The “slave narratives” are themselves historically conditioned, reflecting the intervening experience of the decades between the 1860s and 1930s. The Freedom documents, which present the statements of black soldiers and their families, as well as black ministers, educators, and political leaders, demonstrate both the possibility of writing history “from the bottom up,” and the capacity of anonymous people to express their beliefs with eloquence and conviction.


In preparing these documents for publication, Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland have adapted the standards of such multi-volume editing projects as the Papers of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson to the very different requirements dictated by their enterprise. To annotate meticulously every piece of writing by a specific person or group would obviously be impossible here. In any case, that debatable procedure has so slowed the Jefferson papers that their publication won’t be complete until the twenty-first century.

That the letters published in Berlin’s collection were often written by semiliterate freedmen made it difficult to reproduce the documents as they originally appeared; but in fact the difficulties prove less daunting than might have been expected. Some blacks became literate under slavery; others dictated letters to those able to write, and the semiliterate tended to spell phonetically, making their letters (with punctuation introduced by the editors, where necessary, simply by inserting extra spaces between words) not only entirely readable, but a mine of information for students of nineteenth-century black pronunciation and diction. “Please excuse my bad writing as I never went to School a day in my [life],” writes Garland H. White, a Georgia ex-slave. “I learned what little I know by the hardest.” With editorial intervention kept to a minimum, the letters of White and the others are still fully comprehensible.

The Freedom volumes differ from other historical editing projects in being both highly selective and interpretative. Each is planned around a large theme—in the current volume, the military experience; in subsequent ones, labor relations after emancipation, the destruction of slavery, and the creation of the black community. The documents within each volume are presented topically rather than chronologically. Instead of attempting to annotate each letter, the editors have concentrated on a general introduction and prefaces to the various sections. Taken together, the introductions in this volume provide the best historical survey now available of the black military experience during the Civil War.

The outlines of the story are familiar to historians. Although the Lincoln administration was initially reluctant to enlist blacks, manpower shortages led the army to authorize the formation of black units, and the Emancipation Proclamation welcomed black recruits. Eventually nearly two hundred thousand served, most of them former slaves. At first, commanders assumed blacks would be used primarily as laborers and support troops, thus freeing more white soldiers for battle. (“Instead of the musket It is the spad and the Whelbarrow and the Axe,” a black corporal complained in a letter to the president.) But blacks soon participated in combat, and also waged a prolonged and successful struggle for pay equal to that of white troops. Despite discrimination within the army (blacks, for example, were barred from becoming commissioned officers), military service transformed the self-esteem of the soldiers themselves and the entire black community, and to some extent led to a weakening of racial barriers and prejudices in the North.

That is how the story of the black soldier is conventionally presented—as a heroic step forward in a long struggle for racial justice. The Black Military Experience moves far beyond this to explore neglected ambiguities and contradictions in the lives of black soldiers. For example, how and why did blacks join the army? Many different motives and circumstances brought them into the army, and like slavery itself, the practice of recruitment varied widely among different regions.

In the deep South, where most of the black population was concentrated on large plantations, conquering Union officers would sometimes sweep into the slave quarters and gather up every able-bodied man (and many less than able-bodied) to fill their quotas. Here recruitment merged into impressment and even outright kidnapping. “The Soldiers have taken my husband away…and it was against his will,” complains the letter of a black soldier’s wife; and a black recruit tells how an officer came to his house and “said it did not make any difference where I was working, he had orders from high authorities to take us.” The situation was even more complex in parts of Louisiana occupied by federal forces, where loyal planters competed with the army for black manpower, often using political influence to frustrate military recruitment.

In the border slave states, the pattern was entirely different. Since Kentucky and Missouri remained within the Union, they were excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation; but the account here demonstrates that the heavy recruitment of black soldiers undermined slavery in Kentucky well before it was formally abolished in 1865. On the border, enlistment was, for a time, the only legal path to freedom for black men, and the proportion of soldiers to the entire black population far exceeded that in other states.

Many blacks were reluctant to enlist in the army, these documents reveal, partly because of the way their wives and children would be treated after they left. Many letters offer evidence of the deep ties of affection uniting slave families, and give detailed accounts of the abuse of soldiers’ relatives by both Confederate and “loyal” slaveholders. A Missouri woman writes her soldier husband, “They abuse me because you went & say they will not take care of our children…. Remember all I told you about how they would do me after you left—for they do worse.” A Kentucky widow reports, “when my husband was Killed my master whipped me severely saying my husband had gone into the army to fight against white folks.” The government’s apparent indifference to the plight of their families was a source of bitter complaint among black troops.

In countless ways, the editors argue, military service transformed the lives of black soldiers. Their very presence in the armed forces was a stunning reversal of the dependency most had known as slaves, yet the inequalities in pay and the demeaning treatment they often suffered at the hands of white officers reinforced their sense of separateness. In the army, former slaves for the first time received the rudiments of education and became acquainted with formal institutions and the processes of law. On the plantation, the owner had all the authority; in the military, blacks learned to deal with impersonal legal and judicial structures. In military courts, moreover, blacks were able to testify against whites, a practice unheard of in the South and prohibited in many northern states as well.

Black soldiers, in addition, learned the language and procedures of political protest—petitioning for equal pay and for the commissioning of black officers, refusing, in some instances, to accept pay lower than that of their white counterparts, and establishing committees to express their grievances. Free blacks from the North took the lead in these protests, but they were quickly joined by former slaves. Certainly, the documents assembled here provide little evidence of the “servile mentality” of Page Smith’s slaves. Indeed, the protests among black soldiers and the language in which they were expressed raise fascinating questions about what might be called the political culture of the slaves, and reveal how little we know, in some respects, about slavery, despite all the scholarly studies of the past generation.

In the prewar North, free black protest had long since absorbed the ideals of American republicanism and transformed them into a platform for demanding equal citizenship rights. What is remarkable is how quickly blacks who were only recently released from bondage adopted precisely the same political language to express their grievances and aspirations. From the protests over unequal pay to post–Civil War petitions for the right to vote, black soldiers couched their appeals in the language of republicanism; they insisted that racial discrimination violated the fundamental principles upon which the nation was founded. As one Mississippi soldier put it, “the safety of this country depenes upon giving the Colered man all the rights of a white man, and especialy the Rebs. and let him know that their is power enough in the arm of the Govenment to give Justice, to all her loyal citizens.”

Instead of emerging from slavery wholly estranged from the rest of the country, black soldiers, in their claims for rights at least, were quintessentially American. The abundance of letters and petitions they penned to military authorities, Freedmen’s Bureau officials, and President Lincoln himself, reveals a belief that the political system was open to black persuasion and participation. To the extent that these beliefs reflect values held by these men as slaves, historians may have to reconsider their assumption that slaves were largely isolated from the main political ideas of nineteenth-century America.

These documents also reveal how inadequate is the notion, universally accepted by nineteenth-century southern whites and echoed by Professor Smith, that, as he puts it, “many blacks…identified freedom with not having to work.” In fact, the documents suggest that blacks identified slavery not with labor but with unpaid labor. As the wife of one soldier wrote, “Do the best you can and do not fret too much for me for it wont be long before I will be free and then all we make will be ours.” To the mother of a black soldier, slaveholders appeared to be the ones who despised work: “They have lived in idleness all their lives on stolen labor and made savages of the colored people.”

After the close of the war, not surprisingly, black soldiers emerged as the political and cultural leaders of the black community. In rural areas they spread the gospel of black landownership. A Mississippi white complained, “The Negro Soldiery here are constantly telling our negroes, that for the next year, The Government will give them lands, provisions, Stock & all things necessary to carry on business for themselves…. Get the negro Soldiery removed from our midst &…our negroes will be quiet.”

Discharged soldiers were bitterly resented by whites and often singled out as targets of violence. One Maryland veteran complained to the Freedmen’s Bureau, “The returned colard Solgers are in Many cases beten, and their guns taken from them, we darcent walk out of an evening…they beat us badly and Sumtime Shoot us.” Indeed, the documents contain much evidence of the complex white responses to the spectacle of blacks under arms. Many Union officers subjected black troops to brutal and demeaning punishments, or insisted they act as personal body servants. At the same time, under the shock of black military service, southern paternalism crumbled. Even General Stephen D. Lee, scion of one of the most distinguished families of South Carolina, looked the other way when black prisoners of war were murdered by one of his cavalry units.

Many blacks emerged from the army with a renewed faith in the possibility of progress in race relations. Others were convinced that differences between northern and southern whites ought not to be exaggerated. One striking document, a handwritten manifesto found “in the public street” of New Orleans in 1863, observes, “It is retten that a man can not Serve two master But it Seems that the Collored population has got two a rebel master and a union master…one wants us to make Cotton and Sugar…the union masters wants us to fight the battles under white officers.”

These documents are consistently fascinating and moving. But more importantly, as the raw material for future historical writing they give promise that historians will be able to reconstruct the story of America’s greatest crisis without oversimplifying its subtleties and complexities. Any new narrative synthesis will have to take account not simply of the resources of the National Archives used here, but of the thousands of similar and equally revealing documents by “anonymous” blacks and whites that are now scattered in libraries throughout the South. In such materials are the makings of a new appreciation of the meaning of slavery, the nature of the Civil War, and the unresolved heritage of emancipation.

This Issue

March 1, 1984