Thunder at the Gates

Douglas R. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2016)

As the title indicates, this book focuses on African American soldiers and regiments during the American Civil War, specifically looking at the African American regiments in Massachusetts. Although the American Civil War began in the spring of 1861, it was not until around 1864 that African Americans were nationally recognized by the Union as viable soldiers. The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery, sparked “abolitionists to begin to call for the raising of black regiments”[1] Egerton’s research brings to focus the more lesser known African American regiments of the Civil War: Massachusetts 55th and Massachusetts 5th regiments.

At the start of the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate leaders feared that having African American troops would be a hindrance. For the Union, the fear the African Americans wouldn’t be able to take up arms against white Confederate troops stopped them from considering African Americans as soldiers. For the Confederate, the fear the regiment leaders wouldn’t be able to control African American soldiers and there might inner uprisings prevented the Confederates from enlisting African Americans. The possibility that being armed or desiring freedom would result in African Americans fleeing or uprising to escape to freedom was the overall concern on both parties.

However, it is humorous to think that people in the North, especially people within New England, wanted to enlist African Americans from the start of the war. President Abraham Lincoln was the one who was cautious and withheld permission. Egerton does not explore President Lincoln so much, but this perspective calls into question how President Lincoln truly felt about African Americans. On 1 January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. In response, the Confederates disregarded any white man who was “found serving in company with armed slaves.” Rather than being regarded “as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare” these white soldiers fighting alongside African Americans would be viewed “as criminals deserving death […]” While some Northerners felt the same way in this regards, General Robert Gould Shaw saw a value in utilizing African Americans.

Shaw, who became General of the Massachusetts 54th and died during battle, saw that the use of African Americans as soldiers or more would bring the Civil War to a sooner end. As Harriet Tubman epitomized, the utility of runaway enslaved persons as spies would further the advancement of the North. African Americans could blend in as enslaved persons. The South neglected to realize that some African Americans were educated and would leave papers lying around that could be read.

It was July 1863, when an all-white Connecticut regiment ran into trouble when facing a strong Confederate opposition. James Island, South Carolina was the destination of the Confederate regiment. This was intended to be a prelude to seizing Charleston. Egerton takes the time to describe the battle and depicts the 54th Massachusetts Regiment as heroes. This encounter was definitely a turning point in many minds of Northern citizens who doubted or had speculations about the validity of enlisting African Americans.

Mohammed Ali bin Said was born around 1836 in the Kingdom of Bornou, which is now part of Nigeria. Said was captured as a teen by slavers and taken to Turkey. In Turkey, one of his owners was a Russian general of Crimean war fame. Somehow, Said crossed the waters to New England, where he not only worked on whaling vessels, but also renamed himself Ned Hallowell. Hallowell was one of many sailors who joined the Massachusetts Colored Regiments. William Carney, a runaway slave, became another African American soldier for the Massachusetts Colored Regiments. He also became the first African American to win the Medal of Honor. Carney is occasionally referenced for his bravery in one of the 1864 battles where he risked his life to retrieve the American flag from a fallen flag bearer.

Although Egerton depicts such heroics in vivid detail, he also shows the unfair treatment bestowed up African Americans. Apparently, some 180,000 African Americans ended up fighting in the Union army. I would not be surprised if that number was higher and didn’t count the number of enslaved people in the South that acted as spies. Even still, the bravery that the African American community exhibited did not bring equal treatment. This included pay. There was a disparity in how white Union troops were paid compared to African American Union troops, with African Americans receiving the short end of the coin.

Egerton depicts the contribution of African Americans during the Civil War as a heroic display of resistance to the enslavement of their people. His research is thorough and well-constructed in this book. He caters towards a greater audience. This book is for the historian and for those interested in understanding the role of African American soldiers and regiments during the Civil War, bringing forth some of the lesser known African American soldiers, battles, and regiments. From looking at the perspectives of how people felt about African American soldiers in the beginning of the war to the turning point with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Egerton displays that the devotion and desperation for freedom was enough to secure loyalty to the cause. Yet, their courage and bravery was not enough to pave a way for equality within the war or society then after.

[1] Douglas R. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates, 2016.

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