For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops by Kelly Mezurek is the latest contribution to the history of black Civil War regiments. It is an intelligently written study of an unheralded force of Ohio African Americans.
Most of us know of the factors behind Abraham Lincoln’s decision to use black soldiers to bolster the Union cause. The process of building the 54th Massachusetts by Boston’s abolitionists and Gov. Andrew is known to everyone who saw the movie “Glory.” But what of the organization of the more than 170 other black regiments? Were they all created by racially progressive Republicans and staffed by abolitionist officers? Did the men in them believe that they carried the future of their race in their knapsacks? For Their Own Cause answers those questions for one Ohio regiment.
Before Ohio even considered recruiting black men to serve as soldiers, two regiments were already being raised in the state. Neither would go to Ohio’s credit. Massachusetts’ Governor John Andrew had his agents working the cities of the Buckeye State seeking men for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiments.
Ohio’s African American communities supported the recruitment of black troops. In 1862, they held a mass meeting offering to form an Ohio black legion, but Ohio Governor David Tod did not want the Union to be saved by the state’s long discriminated against free black population. Tod was a Douglas Democrat who had become a Union Party politician as the country began to fall apart. He was loyal to the Union, but cool to any moves towards racial equality. He only sought to raise two black Ohio regiments, the 5th and 17th USCT, when the spectre of the draft instilled a fear of civil disorder if he could not meet the state’s recruitment goals.
For Their Own Cause does an excellent job of explaining the politics behind the creation of the 27th USCT. To do so, author Kelly Mezurek sketches the history of Ohio’s black communities and the decades of efforts by many whites to exclude them from their society. The tensions between Democratic Party exclusionists and Oberlin Abolitionists created a space for free blacks to survive, but deprived them of the political oxygen needed to thrive.
When Governor Tod finally admitted that it was better to recruit black men than to draft whites, he ran straight up against the military’s entrenched racism, and his own. Tod’s delay in accepting the inevitability of black enlistment resulted in many of the state’s black abolition activists being snapped up by the Massachusetts recruiters. While Tod thought that he could fill his black regiments in a month, the discriminatory Union Army pay scale and the refusal of the Federal government and Ohio state government to provide enlistment bounties to blacks and support for soldiers’ families made service extremely undesirable for any man with a wife and children. Ohio politicians said that freedom should be enough of a motivator to serve, but the blacks of Ohio were already free. They did not want their families to starve as a result of their decision to enter the army. Kelly Mezurek explains the racial politics behind the recruitment problem in a convincing way that ties public policies to individual decisions to serve.
The slow recruitment of Ohio’s first black regiment, the 5th USCT, meant that its second would not begin until January 1864. The men who joined the 27th USCT differed from those in white regiments. For example, while 60% of the men in the white regiments were born in the state, only 27% of the soldiers of the 27th were natives. On the other hand, while nearly a quarter of the state’s white soldiers were immigrants, 99.7% of the blacks in the 27th were native-born, with five Canadians. Ironically, this most native-born Ohio unit would eventually be commanded by an Irish immigrant.
Those familiar with the history of the black 54th Massachusetts know that Governor Andrew took great pains to insure that it was well-officered. Robert Gould Shaw and many other officers were hand-selected for both experience and commitment to abolition. The officer corps in the USCT could never hope to replicate the highly educated, blue-blooded leaders of the 54th. The officers of the 27th were, by and large, decent choices, but Mezurek writes that they were both inexperienced and too few in number.
Unlike white regiments, where most officers had been promoted from within the regiment, in the 27th USCT by law none of the officers came from the ranks. The officers were selected by an army examining board. The officers were not from the same communities as their men, they were not even of the same race. The noncommissioned officers, corporals and sergeants and others, were not selected by the black men either. Mezurek notes that the white officers tended to choose light-skinned mixed-race soldiers to fill the more responsible positions, perhaps reflecting their own prejudices about race.
The slowness in appointing officers to the 27th was one of the greatest hindrances to its organization. The men could not elect their officers and the governor could not appoint officers of the USCT. All appointments came from the United States Bureau of Colored Troops. So, while the regiment was first organizing and training, only eight of its compliment of 35 officers were in place. The slowness in assigning officers came from an otherwise laudable new system of recommendation and examination of prospective USCT officers.
The fact that black men could not be commissioned as officers meant that when one of the officers was killed, wounded, or resigned, an outstanding sergeant could not be commissioned to replace him. The regiment would have to wait for a new white man to be sent from the Bureau of Colored Troops. With 170 black regiments to look after, the officer needs of one Ohio regiment were frequently overlooked.
For Their Own Cause gives a good account of the regiment’s training, deployment to the Army of the Potomac, and the men’s concerns that they were often perceived more as laborers by white soldiers and officers than as soldiers. The book also provides detailed information on the 27th’s year of combat, beginning at Petersburg in June of 1864 and ending at Fort Fischer and Wilmington. But battle accounts are not the centerpieces of this history of a unit that spent many more days digging than fighting.
Mezurek wisely does not end the book with the mustering-out of the men. A fifth of the book is devoted to the post-war history of the regiment. The veterans of the 27th were held up by Ohio’s black communities as evidence of their devotion to the Union and their entitlement to the same rights as whites. The former soldiers were both voices for equality and symbols of the bonds of combat that should unite black and white men. Mezurek tells the story of the gains made after the war by the state’s African American community, as well as later backsliding.
For Their Own Cause looks at the role these men played in the Grand Army of the Republic, one of the few integrated national organizations in the United States. The veterans’ group gave the men a voice in national affairs and encouraged regular social contact between men of different races. The book also describes the sometimes difficult road that the widows of black soldiers had to travel to obtain a pension.
Overall, I was very pleased with For Their Own Cause and I learned a lot from its pages. Kelly Mezurek is a professor of history at Walsh University and the book conforms to academic standards. Her writing is good, but don’t expect a page-turner. She places the regiment’s story within the history of race relations in Ohio and the development of a black presence in the United States Army. She also does a good job of connecting the soldiers at the Front to the black communities on the Home Front. Unfortunately, because of a lack of surviving war-time correspondence, we don’t get the immediacy of the emotional links between the men of the 27th and their wives and parents that we see in some other modern regimentals. This was the only major drawback to this book.
For Their Own Cause is a worthy contribution to the very small number of modern regimental histories of black units during the Civil War. If you want to learn how a thousand black men, and the communities in Ohio that they came from, staked out their place in Ohio’s war effort, this is an excellent guide.
Pat Young is an attorney and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University. He is the author of The Immigrants' Civil War web series.