Book Review: The Sergeant: The Incredible Life of Nicholas Said: Son of an African General, Slave of the Ottomans, Free Man Under the Tsars, Hero of the Union Army


by Calbreath, Dean

New York: Pegasus, 2023. x, 310. Illus., bibliographic notes, index. $29.95. ISBN:978-1-6393-6324-7

An Extraordinary Life

Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Dean Calbreath gives us a fine biography of Mohammed Ali ben Sa'id (1836-1882). Born into wealth and privilege in the ancient African kingdom of Borno, he might have become a great general like his father (known as ‘The Lion’), but Said’s destiny was very different. When he was about 13 Said was abducted and sold into slavery, beginning a journey that would take him across Africa, to Asia, Europe (where for a time he was valet to a Russian prince), and eventually the United States.

In the course of his journeys Said became fluent in English, French, Russian, German, Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Kanuri, and Mandara.

On the eve of the outbreak of the Civil War, Said was working as a teacher. Calbreath argues that South Carolina’s attack on Fort Sumter turned out to be “one of the key turning points” in Said’s life. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which set policy for recruiting Black men, Said decided to enlist. In early June 1863, he traveled to Boston and became a member of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, the second of the Bay State’s three African-American regiments.

Said’s life experience, education, and leadership skills probably accelerated his promotion to sergeant in the 55th. He soon became a bit of a luminary, mentioned in periodicals for his intellectual actions and international background. Said’s military service highlights issues of discrimination common to African-American troops. They often received a disproportionate share of fatigue duty, for a long time were paid less than white troops, and their promotion opportunities to commissioned ranks was very limited. These experiences left many Black men frustrated. Calbreath weaves a convincing story about Said’s army life, which encompasses the bulk of the book. One of the book’s greatest assets is that it illustrates the diverse backgrounds of the soldiers who served in many USCT regiments.

Following his discharge, Said worked for the US Sanitary Commission, teaching freedmen in South Carolina, became a Registrar of Voters, opened schools for African-American children, and promoted equal rights. Although The Autobiography of Nicholas Said (1873), did not sell well, his efforts earned him the nickname “The Negro Pundit.” Known widely as “a distinguished African,” unreconstructed Southerners ridiculed him as a “Hottentot humbug.”

In writing The Sergeant, Calbreath researched deeply, drawing on Said's many writings, letters, newspaper articles, diaries, speeches, military records, and other documents.

Calbreath uses Said’s travels, adventures, and experiences to examine similarities and the nature of slavery as practiced in different cultures, while giving us an account the life of an extraordinary individual who fought against “prejudice of color,” a man who not only led an extraordinary life, but also “found ways to achieve his goals while not pushing too hard against the status quo.”

Well written and an easy read, this reviewer recommends The Sergeant for anyone with an interest in American history.

Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include Navigating Liberty: Black Refugees and Antislavery Reformers in the Civil War South, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 1, "The Bullets Flew Like Hail", John Brown's Raid, Searching For Irvin McDowell, A House Built by Slaves, They Came Only To Die, General Grant and the Verdict of History, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 2, Man of Fire, To the Last Extremity, Hood's Defeat Near Fox's Gap, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", Vol. 2, Outwitting Forrest, All That Can Be Expected, Force of a Cyclone, Lincoln and Native Americans, Detour to Disaster, Lincoln in Lists, A Wilderness of Destruction, Twelve Days, The Civil War Memoirs of Captain William J. Seymour, Stay and Fight it Out, Calamity at Frederick, and John T. Wilder.

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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