by Douglas F. Egerton
New York: Basic Books, 2016. Pp, xiv, 436.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $32.00. ISBN: 0465096646
The 54th Massachusetts and it's Sister Regiments
Everyone who has seen the movie Glory is familiar with the outlines of the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That “Brave Black Regiment” is also immortalized in August St. Gauden’s magnificent sculpture in Boston, as well as in books, magazine articles and on film. Mention Fort Wagner and the student of the Civil War can give you a virtual blow-by-blow description of the regiment’s most famous fight. But how many of those who know so much about Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his men know anything at all about the 54th’s sister regiments, the 55th, and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry?
Thunder at the Gates is a collective regimental history of the three black Massachusetts regiments. While I at first wondered if author Douglas Egerton’s decision to combine the story of the three regiments into one volume made sense, I came to see the virtues of this approach.
The white officers of all three regiments came from the same social milieu of earnest, educated, upper-class abolitionists. With the notable exception of Robert Gould Shaw, they were mostly from the elite of Boston. Some were even related to each other by blood or marriage. In addition, it was not unusual for officers from one of the three regiments to transfer to another of them.
Putting them all together also highlighted the contrasts among the white officers. Charles Francis Adams, who would command the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, comes across as a snobbish man of great prejudices. Col. Pen Hallowell of the 55th Massachusetts, on the other hand, was the sort of man who led his men but who also learned from them.
Douglas Edgerton also gives us insights into the men who filled the ranks of the regiments. The three regiments were not identical in where they drew recruits from. The 54th Massachusetts recruited nationally from throughout the North and had very few Massachusetts men below the rank of lieutenant. The 55th included many former slaves. The men of the 5th Cavalry knew that they were a particular experiment because many whites believed that black men were incapable of the initiative required for an effective cavalry trooper.
The author tells the stories of some of the men, including that of the African immigrant Nicholas Said and William Carney, the Medal of Honor winner. Egerton also looks at the discrimination the black troops suffered from the Union high command, and their direct actions taken to bring attention to the disabilities they had imposed on them. Resistance to unequal pay set the tone for soldiers bent on forcing the Federal government to recognize them as equal to white men.
Douglas R Egerton teaches at Cornell University and a professor of history at Le Moyne College. He brings remarkable scholarship to this project, but offers his findings in clear text.
Thunder at the Gates is a fine book for those readers interested in the military aspects of the war. It also examines the interplay of race, politics, and the army at a liminal moment in American history. Overall the writing is effective. This is a welcome addition to the literature on black soldiers in the Civil War.
Originally published in the Sept. 28, 2020 installment of the Reconstruction Era Blog (https://thereconstructionera.com/
), this review is used by the kind permission of Mr. Young.
Note: Thunder at the Gates is also available in several e-editions.