Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Just Finished Reading - A Great Sacrifice

One of the challenges of telling the African American story, before or during the Civil War, is the lack of direct sources that provide their perspective. The disparity of extant primary sources from this period is due largely to their limited opportunities to attain an education and thus benefit from learning with acquired literacy skills. Another hindrance was the fact that few blacks at that time had little leisure time to develop and exercise reading and writing skills. In addition, it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century that African American documents started to be actively collected in large numbers, and by that time many had been lost forever. To counter this obstacle historians search for primary sources in non-traditional forms that have resided in repositories for decades. For instance, government and state pension records inform us better about the black military experience, as do reports from black soldiers sent to northern African American newspapers.

A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War by James G. Mendez makes great use of the letters sent mainly by northern black women to government and military officials like the president, secretary of war, and various generals to tell the black Civil War story. Today these documents are largely held in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

In this book Mendez offers an engaging and informative introduction, then provides 11 chapters that follow the chronology of the black military experience during the Civil War-era and covers issues that elicited correspondence from the families of black soldiers. In the introduction, Mendez makes a number of important points. A primary point is the stake that northern free blacks placed on the importance of contributing toward U.S. military service in proving the race's worthiness of citizenship, and the eradication of slavery. Mendez writes, "Therefore, northern blacks could not help but take a stand on the slavery issue. Struggling to survive at the bottom of the political, economic, and social ladder in northern society, blacks wanted to improve their lives and opportunities for advancement, but the existence of slavery made this task even more difficult."

The army service of young black men, many of whom were the primary providers for their families, often left those on the home front in economic distress. Families of the soldiers felt the need to write government and military officials to let them know that they were not only sacrificing their loved one for the good of the country, with him they were also giving up much of their economic earning power. So, when issues such as unequal pay between white and black soldiers arose, black families wanted Union officials to know they saw it as unfair and described how it affected them. One letter to Lincoln on this issue, this one from a black soldier in the 54th Massachusetts, argued the point with penetrating logic: "Now your Excellency, we have done a Solider's Duty. Why Can't we have a Soldier's pay? You caution the Rebel Chieftain [Davis], that the United States knows no distinction in her Soldiers. She insists on having all her Soldiers of whatever creed or Color, to be treated according to the usages of War? Now if the United States exacts uniformity of treatment of her Soldiers from the Insurgents, would it not be well and consistent to set the example herself by paying all her soldiers alike?" It's difficult to argue that point without being hypocritical, isn't it?

Other issues that families and soldiers wrote letters about were the unfortunate episodes of racial violence in northern cities, desires for up-to-date information on their soldier loved ones whereabouts and safety, requests for discharges for health or economic reasons, and the undesirable conditions encountered during occupation duty, among others. These amazing sources vividly show that northern African Americans during the Civil War attempted to exercise citizenship rights, although not officially recognized as such at that point. By actively participating in petitioning government and military officials in addressing their grievances, blacks, especially women, blazed a trail toward true freedom and equality that is still a goal today.

A Great Sacrifice is wonderfully written and well researched. It adds significantly to our knowledge of the African American Civil War experience and fills a previous scholarly void. I enthusiastically recommend it!

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