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Campfires Of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War Hardcover – November 18, 2002
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African-Americans - both freemen and ex-slaves - enlisted for a variety of reasons, from patriotism to sheer poverty. Like many of their white counterparts, they attributed theological significance to the war. Military service for those relegated to lower social classes has been always been a medium for social advancement, and this is how Northern black leaders envisioned such service for the black soldier (53). Though ignored or marginalized by Northern and Southern societies, Wilson shows that like American society at large, that of the African-American grew and progressed amidst the atmosphere of impending secession and subsequent war. So circumstanced, the camps would evolve and vary in regard to physical environment, leadership styles of officers and non-commissioned officers, quality of training received, and the effects of combat experiences. Each camp had their chaplains, cooks, camp followers, singers of songs, and writers of verse. The universal pastimes of gambling and drinking ironically belied the false racial barriers preventing African-Americans from joining white regiments. Furthermore, like all soldiers, they built "social bonds and friendship networks with the comrades with whom he shared a tent" (10). Still, they resented stereotyping attitudes that sought to relegate them to nothing more than waiters and servants (or to fatigue duty). Although after the war they formed veterans' societies, in general, most of the soldiers were glad to be rid of the camp life. Yet, Wilson does not put the black soldier on some glorious pedestal. He notes, for instance, like their white counterparts, some black soldiers exploited women, often as a tool of revenge.
Many of the white officers who commanded the all-black units also joined out of patriotism. Some were abolitionist visionaries; others seemed interested only in self-promotion. Most had genuine concern for the welfare of their men, fighting for pay equality and post-war resettlement on agrarian bases. By stressing patriotism and enforcing discipline, officers and non-commissioned officers alike were able to reassure their soldiers of the particular dignity of fighting for the Union. Still, some officers seemed only interested in their own welfare while many felt true education was beneath the capability of black soldiers (Wilson has an entire chapter on the struggle for literacy). Some of them were base enough to steal from their soldiers. Wilson puts it best: "the soldiers and officers traveled to the same destination, but they did so on different paths" (30).
To say Wilson's work is well researched would be a bit of an understatement. At the end, the book contains eighty-five pages of worthwhile notes. His work adds to the growing scholarship of studies on the African-American soldiers' experience in a formative period of American history. As such, it is a fitting companion to Berlin, et al, Freedom's Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 1998), and John David Smith's Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). Wilson does not explore the troops' experiences in combat; he knows other studies cover that issue (for combat, see Noah Andre Trudeau's encyclopedic Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 [Back Bay Books, 1999]).
No appeasement to some 'publish or perish' dictum of the academy, Wilson realized that his work was "less a research project than a journey through history" (210). At $39.00, the hardback edition will likely make its first appearances mainly in public rather than private libraries. Notwithstanding, for determined students and scholars this thoroughly researched exemplar of historiography is well worth the price.