Monday, December 31, 2018

Just Finished Reading - The Colors of Courage

I had remembered seeing The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg's Forgotten History - Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War's Defining Battle by Margaret S. Creighton in our bookstore at work when it first came out back around 2005-2006. But already having a number of books on Gettysburg, I decided to pass on it at that time. Then, in a recent issue of the Civil War Monitor magazine, a panel of historians were asked to offer their favorite books on Gettysburg, and a number of them included it among their choices. With those endorsements, I searched and found an inexpensive copy online and added it to my library. When I suggested it to our book club at work for our next group read, it was selected. And having sometime over the holidays I dove in and finished it. Wow! I'm glad all of those above related circumstances worked out the way they did, because it all led me to an excellent book.

The Colors of Courage, as the subtitle suggests, takes a non-traditional approach to the Gettysburg experience. While there are obvious connections to the military history of the battle, especially where it concerns German soldiers of the XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac and with references to the immigrants among the Louisiana Tigers, the focus is much more on social and cultural history. What Creighton attempts to do, and I believe she fully succeeds, is to tell those other stories of how the campaign and battle also effected people who were not traditional combatants.

Her look into the world of women in the town of Gettysburg is fascinating! With many of the town's men already in the Union army or fleeing the chance of capture in the advance of Gen. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, it was the women of the community to were largely left to deal with the Confederate invasion. It was they who tried to hide the cows, hogs, and preserves; it was they who had to feed the hungry soldiers of both armies; it was they who braved the battle as it spread through the town; and it was they who were often left to nurse the wounded of both sides, and even bury the dead.

The important third leg of Creighton's study is the African American community of Gettysburg. Due to the location of Gettysburg, it was an often traveled route for fugitive slaves in the decades before the Civil War, and for many of those who had attained their freedom, it became their new home. Often forced to work in service occupations and largely segregated to their own corner of the community, they nevertheless provided invaluable labor for the town and developed a rather close-knit community built around church and racial solidarity. When Confederates started rounding up both free people as well as fugitive slaves in the region, many of Gettysburg's blacks were forced to flee to areas further north. Some who had few options of mobility or the time required to get away stayed and braved the storm.

This all makes for an amazing story of struggle and perseverance. Creighton's well-written book incorporates many different sources of information: military reports, newspaper accounts, letters, journals, and oral histories, all help provide the accounts she chooses to tell. This book is significant because it gives us those missing pieces of the puzzle that the traditional military histories too often leave out.

The actions of armies do not only have repercussions for the belligerent opposing forces, they also have long-term effects on the communities where they happen to fight. This is the story of how immigrants, women, and African Americans handled (and also remembered) their part of the Gettysburg storm. I highly recommend it!

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