Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865, by Noah Andre Trudeau

The book titled Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, written by Noah Andre Trudeau is an important historical book, for it exclusively deals with the experience of African American combatants during the Civil War.  While there is copious scholarly literature on the Civil War, this book offers a unique apolitical perspective on the Civil War, in that the black Union soldiers’ experience of the war was markedly different from what their white colleages went through.  For example, when Confederates captured black Union soldiers, the treatment meted out to them was far more severe and savage than how captured white soldiers were treated.  Even within the Union army, blacks faced more rigorous punishments for not properly following orders than their white colleagues.  In other words, for black Union soldiers, the enemy was both within and without.  And many of them joined the Union army out of desperation and inevitability rather than any real hope for emancipation.  And their apprehensions turned out to be valid, for though after the end of the war they were freed from chattel slavery the commnity continued to remain marginalized and discriminated against.  The book reveals to the reader the dire conditions in which black Americans lived prior to the war and what dreams they had built upon the favorable outcome to the war.  The essence of the book is that it portrays the worries, experiences and dreams of blacks during a pivotal period in American history.

As one reads through the book, a picture of black troops as heroic and brave people clearly emerges. The author succeeds in showing to the reader that the issues, challenges and prospects faced by black troops were distinctly different from that of white troops.  Though they fought the war hand-in-hand, under a common Union command, black troops displayed greater capacity for bravery and heroism, partly because of their belief in their cause and partly because their situation left open no other option.  Indeed, at the time of the war, it was an all-or-nothing situation for the future of black Americans.  Having been cornered by history and political circumstances, they responded in the most gallant manner one could have imagined.  And author Noah Trudeau does an exemplar job of bringing to light this unexplored aspect of American history.

Author Noah Andre Trudeau has to be credited for attempting what amounts to a revisionist history project.  Having conceived of this book toward the end of last century, his work is preceded by extensive literature (both fiction and nonfiction) on this subject.  In this context, the author must have questioned himself about the relevance and the necessity of this project to contemporary and future readers.  But Trudeau has justified the book by narrating a turbulent period in American history from the exclusive standpoint of blacks, without being overtly critical of white elites of the time.  Undertaking such a major historical research project that strives to give a totally new perspective on events was never going to be an easy task.  Moreover, conventional knowledge on the subject must have been of little help to the author, as they usually align with the establishment viewpoint.  As a result, the author depends a lot on the personal correspondences of black troops and their families as well as circumstantial and secondary evidence to arrive at conclusions.  Some critics have argued that such sources can be misleading and give only subjective feelings of the unfolding events, whereas other critics have stated that such sources tend to be more authentic than offical hand-outs.  Hence, at this point in time, the jury is still out on whether the book meets scholarly standards in the conventional sense.

Finally the author should also be commended for the meticulousness and depth of scholarship.  Alongside his previous works such as Gettysburg, Southern Storm, etc, this book is a valuable resource for students of American history.  The conferring of Fletcher Pratt Award and Jerry Coffey Memorial Prize on the author is very well earned indeed.  When we take into consideration Trudeau’s work with National Public Radio, it is fair to say that he is a leading hisorian of our times who is a vital contributor to public discourse. It is also apparent that the movement for subaltern studies and revisionist history pioneered by such historians as Howard Zinn, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Parenti, etc has inspired Trudeau to undertake this challenging and potentially controversial subject.  In this respect, he is one of a select band of authors who provide an alternative viewpoint on well-trodded subject matters.

Reference:

Noah Andre Trudeau, “Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865”, first published in 1998 by Little Brown & Co, ISBN – 0316853259