Friday, July 20, 2012

More Charisma than a Canteen

In a post from last year looking ahead to this year’s reading, I expressed some doubts about the level of writing I would find in Joseph T. Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle. Civil War enthusiasts can sometimes lack presentational skills. I have a set of DVDs from what appears to be a local-access cable show about the American Civil War, and its hosts, while full of interesting of information and in possession of fascinating artifacts, have less charisma than the battered canteen they showed in the last episode I watched. But after a couple of days with the book, I’m happy to report that my concerns about Forged in Battle were groundless.

Glatthaar’s history of the United States Colored Troops has many virtues to recommend it. The author examined manuscripts in several archives and consulted hundreds of primary and secondary sources. Then he organized all that material without falling into the mediocre historian’s trap of trying to list all the interesting facts and ideas he uncovered, but instead arranging them into paragraphs with clear topic sentences. The best expository prose should make sense even with a kind of speed reading that takes in only the first sentence of each paragraph (please don’t try it on my blog!), and Glatthaar’s prose offers an excellent model.

But the best-written prose can have no more interest than its subject matter, and in this regard again Glatthaar succeeds. The topic itself of black regiments in the Civil War is gripping enough. But Forged in Battle covers the topic with enough nuance to make it even more interesting. The first paragraph, in saying that southern use of black soldiers near the very end of the war showed that Confederate whites had become slaves to war demands, indicates the author’s nose for the irony that pervaded the war. In just the first two chapters, he addresses the expressed motivations of free blacks who fought, slaves who escaped to fight, slaves who stayed home and didn’t fight, and slaves who actually fought for the Confederacy; the mixed feelings of northern whites toward blacks and several reasons for their slow but sure change toward acceptance of a war for abolition; and the surprising acceptance by the black soldiers themselves of the policy to use white officers to lead them. Less surprising is the eagerness with which the white officers volunteered for this duty. While many northern civilians had contradictory reasons for opposing the induction of black soldiers – either, they thought, they were like wild beasts who couldn’t control themselves once on the rampage, or else they were like lazy children – the officers found them in general more disciplined, tidy, and eager than their white counterparts.

My step-brother-in-law (who is also my step-uncle-in-law, as it happens, without any of the funny marriages that usually explain such riddles) gave me this book many years ago. I put it on my reading plan when I made the schedule in 2006 because it had already sat on the shelf unopened for too long even at that time. I wish now I hadn’t waited so long, but then that’s true of many of the books on The Plan and one of the reasons for drawing it up in the first place.

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