REVIEWED:Thunder at the Gates


Thunder at the Gates by Douglas R. Egerton (Civil War History, 2016).

This is a very well-written, compelling and thorough account of the three pioneering regiments of African-American soldiers raised in Massachusetts during the Civil War (though the men came from all over the country and even several foreign lands). The 54th Massachusetts Infantry was the very first official US unit of black men–their early career is popularly best known in the dramatic movie Glory. While that movie (a fine piece of cinematic art) leaves off in the immediate aftermath of the regiment’s 2nd battle, the insanely brave but doomed attack on Battery Wagner, the shattered unit was rebuilt and fought on for the rest of the war–in South Carolina (in the end helping force the Confederates to abandon that fort and ultimately Charleston itself), as well as in Georgia and Florida–and even served as part of the occupying force in Charleston afterward.

Their brother units, the 55th Mass. Infantry and the 5th Mass. Cavalry followed thereafter. Their success paved the way for nearly 200,000 more black soldiers who joined the fight–a vital source of fresh blood (literally and figuratively) for the Federal forces in the war’s last, ultimately decisive two years.

Besides providing a good and highly readable account of these units’ overall history, Egerton pays particular attention to over a dozen individual members of these units–the black enlisted men (including several who rose through the ranks to be the first commissioned officers of their race in the US Army) and key white officers. The author does a fine job conveying the political and social context, including the shameful prejudice these men faced (from northerners as well southerners) and how they overcame it to forge remarkable martial achievements (and even earn the grudging respect, occasionally even admiration of many fellow soldiers).

In doing so, Egerton avoids the temptation of focusing mainly on the too-often deified white officers who led them. The exploits, character and death of Robert Shaw, the 54th’s first commander, and other important white figures are by no means ignored or minimized–it’s just that the men of color who so bravely fought and bled alongside him and his like are accorded the full dignity and attention their circumstances and service merited.

Fascinating characters truly abound here: Runaway slave/Sergeant William Carney (the first black man to win the Medal of Honor while fighting–and being maimed–at Battery Wagner); the multi-talented sons of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass; the thoughtful son of Douglass’s white colleague William Lloyd Garrison; the astonishing African nobleman, world-traveling former slave and multilingual teacher-turned-soldier Nicholas Said; James Henry Gooding, another former slave and teacher, who recorded so much of the 54th’s history (including his eye witness account of Shaw’s battlefield death) before being wounded, captured and murdered at the infamous Andersonville POW camp; and Stephen Swails, the army’s first black lieutenant and a prominent South Carolina legislator in the heady and all-too-short days before white racists reasserted their control at the end of Reconstruction.

I should also note that Egerton doesn’t ignore or gloss over those few (out of almost 5,000 who served in these regiments) who failed to live up to the high standards set by the men listed above.

While giving the author his due, I should also mention that there are some errors in the book. Another reviewer, a historian with particular interest and knowledge of Robert Gould Shaw, points to several incorrect statements Egerton makes about the young Colonel’s military efforts prior to the formation of the 54th. And I spotted a somewhat silly mistake at the book’s end, while reporting on a race-flavored controversy regarding the proposed memorial to the 54th’s actions at the 1864 battle of Olustee, Florida. (They charged forward to save inexperienced units–black and white alike–who’d walked into an ambush then panicked. Fighting a stubborn rear-guard action, the 54th’s veterans allowed bungling General Seymour’s beaten army a safe retreat.) Egerton states that 2014 marked the “bicentennial” of the event, when of course he meant the “sesquicentennial” (150th anniversary).

In any case, this is–overall–a book that brings the people involved in this important piece of history to stunning life and I recommend it.




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