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Air Date: 050208
Subject: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era
Book: Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (Civil War America)
Guest: Richard M. Reid
Summary: Richard M. Reid, author of Freedom for Themselves, discusses the role of African-American troops from North Carolina during the Civil War.
Brett’s Summary: Richard Reid and Gerry discuss the author’s book on Black troops in North Carolina during the Civil War era. There were four such regiments in existence, and Reid chose these regiments as a “lens” through which to view Black soldiers’ experiences during the Civil War. Reid believes 85% or so of the Black soldiers’ experience would coincide with those of the white soldiers, and he tries to find the balance between what was unique to the Black soldier and what was not. For instance, Reid found cases of violence post war between Black soldiers and White civilians. However, he found similar instances of violence between White soldiers and White civilians as well. Reid explores things such as the perception of their performance, the question of atrocities, the issue of dramatic social transformations that they seemed to be symbolizing, the condition of their families, and others.
For the first three Black regiments raised in North Carolina, there was an attempt to use White Massachusetts men as officers, men who were abolitionist in sentiment, were reformers, and who had some military experience. Edward Wild’s idea was to raise a brigade of Black soldiers who can show the world just how well Black soldiers can perform. However, these attempts were not able to be completed due to the exigencies of war. The last regiment Reid studies is a heavy artillery regiment raised primarily for logistics reasons whose men never fire a shot in anger and spent their time as laborers. Reid frankly admits the difficulty of presenting a mostly mundane existence such as this in an exciting way for the reader.
Southern Black regiments had an additional problem which most Northern Black regiments did not: illiteracy. Most of the Northern regiments had free Blacks who were literate, something many of the Southern regiments lacked, placing a lot of extra burden on the officers. Military life offered Southern Black soldiers some new opportunities which they had not previously had, including the ability to testify against Whites in trials. The 2nd North Carolina Colored Troops (later the 36th United States Colored Troops) were tabbed to guard White Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout, Maryland in 1864. Reid discusses this interesting juxtaposition of authority which surely must have driven home what the war was about to these Confederate prisoners. To make matters worse for the Black soldiers serving in this duty, the civilians in the surrounding area were not sympathetic to the these men. Clashes often resulted. Interestingly, the Southern Black soldiers faced additional prejudice from their White officers. These officers viewed the Northern Black regiments with much more respect than their Southern counterpart.
Reid studies the performance of these regiments as well in comparison to other units. The author talks about how he tried to measure these performances, and his difficulty with “confirmation bias”, the tendency to remember things in such a way as to confirm preexisting notions. He looks at this in one way by comparing how people chose to remember the fights of the North Carolina Black regiments versus the accounts of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner. He believes how people chose to remember how Blacks performed had as much to do with how they already viewed Black soldiers at the time they recorded their remembrances.
Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public Historians such as park rangers and museum curators,wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.
In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.
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