REVIEW: The Black Civil War Soldier (2021)

A book by Deborah Willis

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

The history of The American Civil War is often clouded by heaps and piles of romanticism and revisionism that has made the discussion of the conflict troubling for a number of years. One step onto Facebook, especially at any politically charged moment in modern times, and you’ll see all manner of misinformation and even blatant trolling that kills any sort of educated discourse. I’ve even read books that go into these tangents, and ultimately they lose sight of their purpose pretty fast and turn into a political quagmire.

Luckily, this book is not like that – it’s straightforward and uses the historical documents to tell the story, it avoids editorialization, and conjecture a fact that is refreshing to me in it’s simplicity. It reminds me a lot of Ken Burns’ Civil War series from thirty years ago – it also used documents and quotes to tell the story, and the general public loved it for that. The more-specific topic at hand is – the history of Black Civil War Soldiers on both sides of the conflict – their motivations, their feelings, and their dreams – told in many instances in their own words through letters and interviews given at the time or soon after.

While not shocking, some of the accounts of how both sides treated black people for the duration of the war was jarring at times. Well, jarring in the sense that many treat that war as a “good guys” vs “bad guys” situation, when it largely was more nuanced than that. One account that was particularly sad to me was a point when Union soldiers had arrived in a southern town to be greeted as liberators by all the the slaves left alone by their conscripted slave masters. Military leaders had to basically say “we are not here to free slaves, but to put the Union back together slavery and all” – for many slaves that sunk into their heart like a stone and colored their opinion of the Federal Government from then on. The book is an equal opportunity expectation-flipper, as there are also accounts of Black soldiers on the south being treated fairly by the Confederates.

This book is amazing, and highly recommended. I’m sure there are similar books out there, but this one was a real page-turner especially to see the gorgeous photographs that have been preserved in it.