Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Bit of American History

I love to read!

It would be safe to say that I am a bibliophile. I have to have a book in my hands! Regardless of where I’m going, or what appointment I’m keeping, I take a book with me, “just in case . . .”

Earlier in the week I needed to drive into Modesto on business. Normally I do not like driving into a city for any reason; however, I decided that when I was through with my obligations I would treat myself to a visit to a used bookstore, called, “Yesterday’s Books.” Now, I need another book like I need another hole in my head, but, hey! As I said earlier, I love books and I love to read. So I needed little motivation to make my visit.

There is a particular section that I’m always drawn to, and that’s History. To the point, American History, and specifically, the Civil War era. I have a fairly large personal library split between my office at the church and my office at home situated comfortably in the loft. My collection of various tomes has been a lifetime in the making. I’m particularly proud of my Civil War collection. As I sat on the floor in the book store, reading through the various books on the War Between the States, I noticed a series of books I’d not seen before. It’s called the Collector’s Library of the Civil War. Many of the thirty volumes were written within fifteen to twenty years from the end of the conflict.

The first of these books that I have chosen to read is entitled, “Army Life in a Black Regiment.” I have read about many black military units over the years, and the obstacles they have had to overcome. But I had not read a first-hand account of a commander who trained and led black troops during the Civil War. Free men served during the American Revolution, but the Civil War was the first war where blacks were actively enlisted to form separate fighting units. Due to prejudice, ignorance and distrust, many believed that blacks would not make good soldiers. Even after black units acquitted themselves with courage and valor on the field of battle (most notably, “The Massacre at Fort Pillow,” April 12, 1864), it was very difficult for whites (northern or southern) to accept them as the equal of white soldiers.

It has been my distinct privilege to have known some amazing warriors during my thirty-four years in the military. One of those was Dr. Malcolm LaPlace, my professor of African American Studies at the College of Alameda where I attended soon after returning from Vietnam. Dr. LaPlace was commissioned an officer during WWII and took the time to tell me many of the experiences he had fighting the Nazis in France. For instance, after returning home from the war front, wearing the uniform of an American Army officer bedecked with ribbons, he was still called “Boy,” and made to sit in the back of the bus. Segregated units were still used even through WWII. It was the Korean War (1950-53) that introduced integrated fighting units. While stationed at Rough and Ready Island Naval Communication Station, Stockton in the late 80s, I met a civilian employee who had been an Army officer who was placed in command of an all-black unit in 1948. He had a picture on his office wall depicting him and his other white officers with the black soldiers all standing in formation for the ubiquitous standard military unit photograph. When I questioned him about his experiences, he would launch into his many stories, all very positive, referring to his experiences leading these men as the highlight of his military career.

“Army Life in a Black Regiment” is authored by Captain (later brevet colonel) Thomas Wentworth Higginson. What you read is this man’s personal diary entries during the two years he served as the commanding officer. He was seriously wounded during a military engagement in 1863 and was retired from the military in 1864. An ardent abolitionist, Higginson believed blacks were every bit as good, even better, at drill and training than their white counterparts. Once given the chance, he was convinced they would excel beyond all expectation. He proved to be right.

Some of Captain Higginson’s observations are insightful. He says, “Fortunately, I felt perfect confidence that they (the black soldiers in his command) could be so trained (to a high standard of drill and discipline), - having happily known, by experience, the qualities of their race, and knowing also that they had home and household and freedom to fight for, besides that abstraction of ‘the Union.’ There was no trouble to come from the men, I thought, and none ever came. I had been an abolitionist too long, and had known and loved John Brown too well, not to feel a thrill of joy at last on finding myself in the position where he only wished to be.”

“As commander, the neophyte colonel earned his men’s respect: One bit of sage advice he gave them was to obey their officers not because they were white, but because they were officers. And his men earned the respect of friend and enemy. A proud, well-disciplined unit took shape, its self-esteem boosted ironically by a standing Confederate threat to hang all captured white officers of black regiments as well as their troops. Higginson wrote, ‘We all felt that we fought with ropes around our necks.’”

By the end of the Civil War more than 200,000 blacks had fought for the Union. After the War, Higginson felt that the nightmare of slavery had suffered a death blow. So he went on to work in the area of his passion which was the defense of human dignity. In particular, black education, women’s rights, anti-imperialism and socialism. He died in 1911 at the age of eighty-seven.

And that’s your bit of American history

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