Monday, April 3, 2017

Five books on the United States Colored Troops Civil War experience

1. Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 by William A. Dobak (2011).

Cornish's The Sable Arm (1956) is a pathbreaking classic and Trudeau's Like Men of War (1998) might be most widely recognized, but Dobak's comprehensive book is arguably the best military history of the USCT contributions to the Union war effort. It ably discusses federal emancipation and recruitment policy, with the bulk of the study covering USCT organization and operations in all theaters while also extending its military treatment into Reconstruction.

2. Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory by Linda Barnickel (2013).

Surrendering black troops could often expect a grim variety of responses from their Confederate foes, from POW status (sometimes accompanied by hard labor) to reenslavement to execution. Fort Pillow is, of course, the most notorious large-scale killing of USCT soldiers taken in the act of surrendering, but like events of differing scales occurred on other fields, and Barnickel's study of Milliken's Bend ranks among the best examinations of those battles in which black troops figured most prominently.

3. Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit by Ian Michael Spurgeon (2014).

The next three recommendations cover unit studies of USCT regiments that fought in those Civil War fronts where black military contributions were most significant. The 1st Kansas (later 79th USCT) was the first black regiment to see combat (at Island Mound in Missouri) and fought in the Trans-Mississippi borderlands for the rest of the war, along the way suffering tremendous losses at Poison Spring in 1864.

4. Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash (2008).

Ash's book is a fine primer on the Sea Island experience, the Port Royal Experiment, the freedmen soldier partnership with eastern abolitionists, and lesser-known USCT operations conducted along the South Atlantic coastline.

5. The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster by James K. Bryant II (2012).

The 36th was a late-1863 USCT unit redesignation of the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry. The regiment participated in numerous raids in Virginia and North Carolina, and was one of the USCT regiments that figured most prominently at the Battle of New Market Heights (Richmond-Petersburg Campaign) in late September 1864. Bryant spent much of his academic training and career studying this unit, and it shows in the depth and quality of the history and roster.


  1. I really enjoy these five books posts. Keep them coming.

    I found this one interesting in its lack of any conventional books about USCT. James Price published a blog on the best 12 books about usct soldiers a little while back and they couldn't be more different. Also all are published in the last ten years.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on Jimmy's list. I just checked it out. Yes, while I try to pay homage to the classics on occasion, my list bias will more often lean toward works of more recent vintage.


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