In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African American leaders and historians, including George Washington Williams, Frederick Douglass, and W. E. B. Du Bois, insisted that any group portrait of the Union army must include black soldiers. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, several historians have taken that directive seriously. Kelly D. Mezurek's For Their Own Cause joins those ranks with a close look at the Twenty-Seventh United States Colored Troops, a black regiment raised in Ohio. Mezurek confirms what we know about the wartime experiences of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) and offers an innovative answer to the question, why would black soldiers fight for a government that discriminated against them? Her answer emphasizes benefits enjoyed by black veterans after the Civil War. Mezurek draws chiefly on muster rolls, pension applications, newspapers, and a modest array of personal papers to narrate the life of the regiment, from recruitment to the twilight years of its last veterans. The second USCT regiment to be raised in Ohio, the Twenty-Seventh USCT formed in January 1864 and, after training at Camp Delaware, headed to the front in the spring. Like most soldiers of any kind in any war, the men of the Twenty-Seventh spent more time in labor and fatigue duty than in combat, but they participated in the Overland Campaign in 1864 (including the siege of Petersburg and the Battle of the Crater) and the fall of Fort Fisher in North Carolina in 1865. After the surrender of Confederate armies, the Twenty-Seventh performed occupation duties in North Carolina until being mustered out on September 21, 1865. They then boarded trains for Columbus, Ohio, and resumed their civilian lives. But the significant effects of soldiering were far from over, as Mezurek contends in the most original part of her book. For Their Own Cause repeatedly emphasizes men's material motives for enlisting, for how they behaved as soldiers, and for their postwar choices about Grand Army of the Republic membership, pensions, and health care. This emphasis on the utilitarian offers a new answer to a long-standing question. African American men had fought in previous U.S. wars, only to have their service forgotten and their individual worth devalued by the U.S. government and by white Americans. Yet many chose to enlist anyway, not only in the Civil War but also in later U.S. conflicts. Why? Mezurek meticulously examines the many ways men of the USCT were treated worse than white soldiers, but she points out that despite this discrimination, they still reaped more economic and social benefits compared to African American nonveterans. “Black military service provided opportunities unavailable to other Northern men who did not serve during the Civil War. This is the most important aspect about their service and later recognition as veterans,” Mezurek writes (p. 11). Individual benefits added up to collective enhanced status for African American veterans, and so successive generations continued (and continue) to serve the United States more fully than the United States served them. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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