James Bryant’s history of “The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War” is an ambitious look at one of the Union’s first military units comprised mainly of self liberated slaves. As with most military history there is more attention paid to the officers, the white officers, than to the enlisted men. Better educated men are more apt to leave written evidence of their lives and the majority of Bryant’s subjects had been kept intentionally illiterate during their time as property. In spite of this complication Bryant made good use of the sources available and produced a clearer portrait of the unit than I would have thought possible.
I was a little concerned about the depth of Bryant’s understanding of the history of the era when I read his explanation of General Butler’s transition from a pro-South Democrat to a Union general volunteering to lead a “colored” unit. Mississippi did not cede between the first and third Democratic Party Conventions of 1860 as Bryant states. (pg. 26) This was the only error I found in the book, however I don’t know if that is due to Bryant’s good research or my lack of knowledge. However, that is outside the focus of this book, only the fact that Butler did change is relevant to the story of the 36th USCT.
What this book does best is demonstrate that the psychiatric concept of “self fulfilling prophesy” is wrong. The vast majority of the people around these men expected them to be timid to the point of cowardice, subservient, thieves, and rapists. Their military record proves them to be just the opposite. They did, under orders, seize tools, supplies, weapons and human property from the Unions enemies. They were often accused of crimes against white women, accused being the important word according to the written testimony of the (white) officers who served with them. Fourteen members of the unit earned Congressional Medals of Honor at the Battle of New Market, something which should dispel any preconceived notions of cowardice or timidity.
Bryant manages to explore several subjects that have been underexamined in US Civil War history, the contrast in the treatment of “Colored Troops” recruited from free Northerners and those recruited from contrabands, slaves who crossed into Union territory in acts of self liberation, the tension between white Union troops and their “colored” comrades, and the willingness of white officers to sacrifice the lives of the USCT in order to allow them to “prove themselves” in battle. Anyone interested in the details of US Civil War history will enjoy this book.
* Originally reviewed for LibraryThing Early Reviewers January of 2013