Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Review: Forged in Battle, by Joseph Glatthaar

Joseph T. Glatthaar
copyright 1990
The Free Press

After I read Glatthaar's General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse, a Facebook friend advised me to check out his previous work, Forged in Battle, saying it was the superior work of the two.

Whether or not that is true is debatable - I enjoyed the book about Lee's army - but Forged in Battle is a wonderful book. It is highly informative, well-written, and an easy, enjoyable read.

The organization of the book is top-notch, with eleven chapters tracking the evolution of the American army's use of African-American troops from the days of being a very unpopular, perhaps unfathomable, idea to the war's end when it was recognized as being a valuable, perhaps even necessary step to ensure the Union's ultimate victory.

Glatthaar begins the book with a chapter "Breaking Down the Resistance," discussing how the idea of using African-American troops slowly became acceptable to the Northern populace, then moves on to discuss how the white soldiers already in the army dealt with this development in the demographics of the army.

The next section of the book deals with the army's challenge in creating and staffing these new regiments of men not before welcomed in the army. This began with the attempt to find men who were both qualified and willing to accept the challenge of serving with and leading African-Americans. Glatthaar points out that men applying for officer positions had many motives, some good, such as a desire to help an oppressed race, and some not so high-minded, like those men who simply wanted the prestige and pay of being an officer. He explains the process involved in testing officer candidates and what those candidates could do to prepare for their examinations. This was a very enlightening chapter, and shows how, despite the efforts of many people to ensure competent men obtained these positions, unqualified men were often able to attain them as well.

Good officers, however, have little impact without good men to lead and the book quickly moves into a discussion of the recruitment of African-American men, from both north and south, men born free and former slaves. The author shows how recruiters attempted to find men to reach various quotas and obtain bounties, and the challenges these recruiters faced, especially trying to recruit in areas where slavery was still alive and well. He explains strategies they tried and even shows how they were not always scrupulous in the way they treated potential recruits.Sometimes, the best recruiters were the army itself, or, especially, African-Americans who had already become soldiers. They frequently were very influential in convincing other African-Americans to enlist.

Once the examining boards and recruiters had officers and men, they needed to become an army, not just an armed mob of men, and the next four chapters explore various obstacles the army and men faced, from topics such as "training and discipline" to dealing with racial prejudice and, finally, to performance on the battlefield, the ultimate judge of a soldier's and unit's contributions.

The next chapter, number 9,  was the most informative, enlightening part of the book in my opinion. "Prejudice in the Service" discusses the blatant racism that the men faced in virtually every aspect in their lives as soldiers, from supposed friends as well as from known enemies. Glatthaar discusses the well-known issue about unequal pay for these men and their various attempts to combat or protest it, but then moves into other areas where unequal treatment - from the Union government, no less - confronted the troops on a daily basis. Inferior equipment, poor medical care, and an excess of fatigue duty (various jobs like burial details, gathering wood, or other physically demanding, unpleasant and perhaps even demeaning tasks) also added to the burdens these troops faced. The men in the "United States Colored Troops" (U.S.C.T.) often were abused or ridiculed by other men in the Union army, and then, of course, faced unique challenges when dealing with possible capture by the Confederates, including being forced into slavery or just slaughtered in a "take-no-prisoners" approach. 

Part of this chapter does point out that some of these obstacles forged bonds between the men and their officers, at least in some instances, as many of the officers protested the various forms of unequal treatment, such as the pay issue or assignment of duties. The men also knew that these officers risked their lives by commanding African-Americans, as Confederates promised to execute such officers for "inciting servile insurrection."

In the final two chapters, this book explores the challenges the African-Americans faced at the end of the war, in Reconstruction and in their post-military careers, with attention also paid to the affects this service had on their white officer and their futures. Glatthaar provides examples of the accomplishments many of the men of the U.S.C.T. achieved in the post-war years, demonstrating that for some of them this service was more than just a short-term job or duty. 

This book is arranged by topics, not strict chronology, and this arrangement works very well, as Glatthaar constantly quotes letters or diaries from various points of the war to illustrate his points. He obviously did a lot of research on the topic and that effort shines throughout  the book. He includes notes and a bibliography, as well as a brief statistical analysis of the men and officers of the U.S.C.T. He also provides a list of African-Americans who won Medals of Honor during the Civil War.

Forged in Battle is a tremendously informative book, providing an outstanding look at the process by which African Americans were able to join the Union army, become soldiers and prove their worth on the battlefield, while also exploring the many obstacles they and even their white officers faced on a daily basis, on and off the field of battle This is certainly a book that Civil War students should read. My only regret about it is that I did not read it years ago.

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