Monday, June 5, 2017

Thunder at the Gates, by Douglas R. Egerton

Several years ago, I read One Gallant Rush, the book that inspired the film "Glory." It is an account of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of African American soldiers organized in the North to fight in the Civil War. Written in 1965, it focused primarily on the regiment's first commander, Robert Gould Shaw, a "Boston Brahmin"; and on the regiment's doomed attack on Fort Wagner, outside Charleston Harbor, which left Shaw and 34 of his men dead. There was little information on the soldiers themselves, even their names. This book, subtitled "The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America," gives them their due and more.

It is actually the story of three black regiments raised in Massachusetts: the 54th and 55th Infantry, and the 5th Calvary. There is still some debate about which exactly was the first regiment of infantry, but the war-time governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, was determined the first cavalry regiment would be from his state. African Americans had tried to enlist from the very beginning of the war, but Abraham Lincoln's army wouldn't accept them (though the navy did). Union General Benjamin Butler began recruiting blacks as laborers in the areas he commanded. Many of them were slaves escaping to Union lines, and he declared them "contraband of war." Federal commanders in the South, occupying the Confederate states, followed suit. Eventually some began arming these groups of men. John Andrew lobbied the administration for months to allow him to raise a regiment of "persons of African descent, organized into special corps." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the administration finally agreed. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry would be the first. Other black regiments followed, organized into the "United States Colored Troops," under white officers for most of the war. Only after intense lobbying by the soldiers, their officers, and allies across the North were African Americans commissioned as regular officers. The first came from the Massachusetts regiments.

In this account, Douglas Egerton writes the history of these regiments through its soldiers and officers. He focuses on fourteen individuals, black and white. In the first chapter, "The Travelers," he introduces the soldiers, detailing their varied backgrounds. The 54h was made up primarily of men from the North, while the 55th and 5th Cavalry included more from the South, including escaped slaves. Among the enlisted men were two sons of Frederick Douglass. The second chapter, "The Brahmins," introduces the white officers. These included Charles Francis Adams, who commanded the 5th Cavalry; two Quaker brothers from Pennsylvania, Pen and Ned Hallowell, who would command the 54th and 55th; and two sons of William Lloyd Garrison.

Professor Egerton recounts the work organizing and training the troops. Many in the North doubted that African Americans could make good soldiers, and the soldiers faced racism in the Army itself. The Confederate government announced that all black soldiers captured would be "returned to slavery," regardless of their actual status. The officers leading the black regiments, if captured, faced execution for inciting "servile rebellion," or more accurately for the crime of leading black soldiers against the white south. Both the soldiers and the officers of the regiments knew that they were facing more than the usual hazards of war, and they took those risks willingly. There was no draft for the African American regiments, as there was for white soldiers. Every one of the more than 170,000 who served enlisted voluntarily. In the end they made up more than 10% of the total Union forces, a crucial boost to the manpower needed to win the long and brutal war.

I learned a lot from this book, which I found very moving as well as very informative. It places the story of these regiments in the larger context of the war, while still focusing on the individuals who fought. It takes their stories beyond the war, as the soldiers returned to civilian life. Many of them struggled, not just with the effects of the war, but also with the racism that still shaped (shapes) the United States. Professor Egerton also discusses the work of preserving the history of the regiments, which began soon after the war ended. At the same time, a movement to commemorate Robert Shaw, the 54th's original commander, led eventually to a bronze marker, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It shows Shaw on horseback among his men, and the back of the monument lists those who fell in battle with him. I've visited that monument in Boston several times (you can see it here). Reading this book has made me want to go back, and also to visit the site of Fort Wagner outside Charleston.

Reading this has also added to my TBR lists. Among the sources cited is the diary of Esther Hill Hawks, "a physician, a Northerner, a teacher, a school administrator, a suffragist, and an abolitionist . . . [who] went south to minister to black Union troops and newly freed slaves as both a teacher and a doctor" with her husband, also a physician. I don't know why I've never come across this amazing woman before. I'm fascinated by Victorian women who overcame all the obstacles to become doctors. I'm really looking forward to reading her diary.


  1. I love books like this because I always learn so much reading them. And I have been trying to read more non-fiction this year. I will definitely add this to my list. Great review, Lisa! Thanks. :)

    1. I've been reading mostly mysteries and family stories this year. This took a bit more concentration, but it was well worth it. I've got a lot of history waiting on the TBR shelves :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!