Lincoln Prize Winner Douglas Egerton Discusses African-American Troops in the Civil War
By Jeremy Porter, Staff Writer
Gettysburg College held its second Lincoln Lyceum Lecture of the semester Wednesday, which featured Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize Laureate Douglas R. Egerton.
The $50,000 Prize was established in 1990 as a partnership between the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, and the honor is “awarded annually for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War soldier, or the American Civil War era,” as stated on the former’s webpage.
Egerton, who has authored eight books and has taught history at Le Moyne College for 30 years, said he was both surprised and honored to receive the prize.
He spoke to the crowd of students, professors, and community members about his award-winning book, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiment that Redeemed America, a history of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment — brought to national attention with the release of the 1989 film Glory.
The book also discusses the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Colored Cavalry. The 54th Regiment, the first African-American regiment formed in the North during the war, is best known for its gallantry at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner and the Battle of Olustee that boosted support for the enlistment of African-American troops in the Union Army. This enlistment played a role in the Union victory.
Egerton, recognizing that much of what people have heard about the 54th regiment comes from Glory, commenced the lecture by listing some of the film’s inaccuracies. He said that the deaths of all the main characters misleadingly suggests that almost everyone in the regiment died at Fort Wagner, and he mentioned how the troops were even facing the wrong direction (away from the battery rather than towards it) in one of the film’s pivotal scenes.
His primary purposes in writing the book were to both clear up any public misconceptions about the 54th regiment and to recall what was not mentioned in the film. Glory focuses on six months of the regiment’s service, but the troops served for another 26 months that were left out.
In his book, Egerton chose to examine 14 soldiers who had particularly interesting backgrounds but were generally regarded as typical troops of the 54th Massachusetts regiment. He described eight of them in great detail during the lecture: an ex-tavern owner with violent tendencies, a Quaker, a music teacher of mixed race, a young white abolitionist (Colonel Robert Shaw, the leader of the regiment), the sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a 46-year-old (the oldest soldier in the regiment), and James Henry Gooding (an educated former slave who wrote to President Lincoln protesting the conditions for African-American troops). Gooding was ultimately beaten to death in Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia after being taken prisoner in the Battle of Olustee.
Egerton made it clear that the troops in the 54th Massachusetts regiment came from a variety of backgrounds. Many were born slaves but others were born free. They came from all different states (mostly Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York). Some were married, some were educated, and some had prior jobs. What united them all was the brutality of warfare. Most of the soldiers mentioned in the lecture were shot, and many continued to fight in the war. Peter Vogelsang, the 46-year-old, was shot in the chest and fought in the next battle, eventually becoming a lieutenant.
Later in the lecture, Egerton discussed the sociopolitical context for African-Americans during the Civil War. The 14th and 15th amendments were not drafted until after the war, so African-Americans were not considered citizens and could not vote (except those in certain states in New England).
Egerton said that one African-American soldier stated it best: they did not fight for their country, they fought to get a country. In other words, they did not feel a powerful allegiance to the Union, but they knew it took beating the South to ensure the establishment of voting rights, citizenship, and equal protection under the law of the United States for all African-Americans. Ultimately, while there was a series of major hindrances on the road to racial equality after the Union victory, these troops were correct.
At the end of the lecture, Egerton focused on the legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. He lamented the way that the American public has continually neglected the role of African-American troops in the Civil War (before and after the release of Glory. He described how the nation doubted African-Americans in the Spanish-American War and both World Wars, but each time they were reminded of the bravery and strength exhibited by the 54th regiment.
Following the lecture was a Q&A session, in which audience members wrote questions on cards that ushers handed to Egerton at the front of the room. One person asked if rank-and-file Confederate troops respected the African-American troops in the Union Army. Egerton said that, while there was obviously animosity between the two groups, many of the Confederate troops acknowledged that the African-American soldiers were formidable battlefield opponents.
Another audience member questioned why more research and writings about the 54th regiment have not been published. Egerton stated that his book is in fact the first to cover in detail the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments and the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Colored Cavalry. He explained that “we didn’t need another book about [Civil War General] Grant,” and he discussed how there are more historical topics than one would expect that still need to be explored and written about â€“ historians just need to go out and find them.
Evidently, Egerton took his words to heart, bringing to light the story of African-American troops whose legacy until recently was largely rooted in Hollywood rather than history.