AFTER THE GLORY: THE STRUGGLES OF BLACK CIVIL WAR VETERANS
By Donald R. Shaffer
University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 304 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY ALAN GROPMAN
Donald R. Shaffer’s “After the Glory,” an account of the struggles of black Civil War veteran warriors, is a solidly researched, brilliantly illustrated, history of the unfinished emancipation of blacks after 1865.
Americans interested in justice should read this fascinating book, because injustice was what the black heroes of the Civil War received from an ungrateful North and a hostile and racist South. Most Americans — black and white — are ignorant of the contributions made by black infantrymen, artillerists, and cavalry during and after the Civil War, and of the high price these warriors paid for their professional service.
More than 200,000 blacks in uniform fought for the Union from 1861 to 1865 (another 200,000 also served as laborers and teamsters), and although formal (and legal) enlistment did not begin until the spring of 1863, blacks made up 9 percent of the total Union combat force over the period of hostilities, and at the end of the war more than 12 percent of the Grand Army of the Republic was black. More than 25 percent of a much smaller Navy was also black, and, like the Army, blacks served in all combat roles. There were more blacks in the Union Army in April 1865 than there was all forces ready for duty in the entire Confederate army.
Blacks in Abraham Lincoln’s Army suffered a higher killed-in-action rate than whites, and the black desertion rate was a small fraction of the white percentage. Blacks also were given less medical attention than whites, and death from wounds and disease were also higher among blacks.
When the Civil War ended in 1865 the African-Americans sought recognition from their white brothers and fairness from the federal government, but long before the 19th century ended — despite heroism in dozens of Civil War battles and 20 medals of Honor (and also regardless of outstanding service to the country in the Indian Wars through the rest of the 19th Century) — black service was all but disregarded in history books, and by the 1880s denigrated.
Northern politicians and business owners by the late 1870s were eager to reconcile with white Southern leaders, and the price the Southern whites demanded was acquiescence in segregation and discrimination of blacks. By the end of the century blacks had lost to right to vote — an essential privilege for which tens of thousands of blacks had died — and an equal right to education. It took African-Americans until 1965 to reacquire the right to vote.
“After the Glory” delineates this tragic history beginning with the high optimism of 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery was passed by the Congress and ratified by the states, to the end of the 19th century when numerous Supreme Court decisions certified segregation and worse. Lawsuits by numerous Grand Army of the Republic African-American veterans, natural leaders of the black community after 1865, were frustrated by bigoted Northern politicians and business operators who were much more interested in reconciliation with whites in the South than they were in fair dealing for blacks. Prejudicial Supreme Court decisions endorsed such subterfuges as the right of the Democratic Party to exclude black voters in Southern states, because the Court ruled that political parties were private organization and could accept or reject individuals as they wished. Given the nature of the “Solid” South in this era where no Republicans were elected to any significant position for about three-quarters of a century, inability to vote in the Democratic primary meant exclusion from voting. The courts also authorized unequally applied literacy tests. Unquestionably, denial of the right to vote was the most significant entitlement lost during this negative era. State courts by constant acquittals legitimated lynching, and the Federal government and its Courts did nothing through the 1960s to dampen this form of terrorism. In all of these cases, the black veterans led efforts to right these wrongs, but their impotence was manifest because of bigotry and indifference in the North and racism in the South.
Mr. Shaffer takes us through the failed efforts of black veterans to confirm their manhood after their military service by receiving an equitable share of monetary and other rewards, by exercising political rights, and by achieving education for their offspring. His most poignant chapter deals with deliberately falsified and non-objective history (and popular history in movies like the erroneous and fallacious “Gone With the Wind”) helped poison attitudes well into the 20th century.
“After the Glory” is an essential book for those who want to understand American race relations past and present.
Alan Gropman is Distingushed Professor of National Security Policy at the Indusatrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University. His views are his own.