Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bryant: "The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster"

[The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster by James K. Bryant II (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2012). Softcover, maps, photos, roster, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:130/248. ISBN:978-0-7864-6878-2 $45]


Regimental histories of black Civil War units continue to be rare releases, especially those raised in the South and composed of ex-slaves. That James Bryant's The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster addresses this deficiency is only part of its value; it's also a very good regimental-roster history period. Redesignated the 36th USCT in November 1863, the regiment began its existence as the 2nd North Carolina Colored Volunteer Infantry. During this formative period, it was part of General Edward Wild's African Brigade. Raiding in eastern North Carolina and Virginia, the soldiers were accused of a variety of depredations and abuse of civilians (including rape). While Bryant's account of their military service, which included 1864 stints as diverse as prison guards at Point Lookout and assault troops at New Market Heights, generally overflows with praise [like many biographers, Bryant falls in love a bit with his subject], he admits the possibility that criminal acts perpetrated against civilians were true. Of course, most of the local white inhabitants, opposed to the presence of armed blacks in their midst, found it in their interest to trumpet such allegations as much as possible.

Bryant's career long study of the 36th is positively Mark Dunkleman-like in its devotion to a single unit. The regiment was the subject of the author's earlier thesis and dissertation works, and it really shows in the depth of research and details from the lives of both officers and men. According to Bryant, this publication of a roster of a unit composed of ex-slaves from Virginia and North Carolina is a unique event in the literature. The roster itself it also far more substantial than a simple list. Data provided, sometimes incomplete, includes name, rank, age, birthplace/residence, occupation (most slaves listed as "farmer"), enlistment date, wounds/death information, discharge date, and other remarks. The only things that really could stand for improvement are the editing and the maps.

While enough information is provided about the lives of individual fugitive slaves to compose a representative picture of a typical recruit, the portraits of the officers amount to mini-biographies. The quality of officer leadership was mixed, and the man most associated with the unit, Colonel Alonzo Draper, may have been a bit unbalanced. In addition to internal dissension and problems with enemy civilians, relations with white regiments could be testy as well, with Draper allegedly ordering his men to fire on the 98th New York during a dispute over a white female civilian arrested during a raid.

The 36th Infantry USCT in the Civil War is a fine regimental roster-history, one of the better ones from this publisher. Its well rounded examination of the military, political, and cultural dimensions associated with the recruitment and deployment of southern raised black combat units comprises a useful model for others to emulate.

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