Houghton Mifflin Textbook -
InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellersContact Us
Textbook Site for:
The Brief American Pageant , Sixth Edition
David M. Kennedy, Stanford University
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
Thomas A. Bailey
Mel Piehl, Valparaiso University
Primary Sources

Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

Thomas Wentworth Higginson Assesses the Black Soldier
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Instructors' Note
Beginning with a brief review of the role of African American soldiers during the Civil War will ensure that students have context for the remainder of the discussion. It is important to emphasize that black troops did not enjoy the same status as their white counterparts. Similarly, white commanders of black regiments operated under certain disabilities, not the least of which was the Confederacy's policy of hanging white unit commanders. Once students understand the passage, instructors can move toward a discussion of how black enlistments affected the course of the war in the long term.

Only after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 were African American troops permitted to join the Union forces. Once in the military, they were segregated in black units led by white commanders, a condition that endured through World War II. Despite discrimination in pay and assignments, African American troops served with distinction; even those who had objected to black enlistments came to respect the African American soldiers. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had commanded a black regiment, was especially supportive of black troops; he later wrote an account of his experience.

Questions to Consider
  1. What qualities does the author single out as particularly praiseworthy in regard to the black soldier?

  2. How does the excerpt clarify why African Americans were willing to fight for a government that still discriminated against them?

  3. What was the significance of the decision to use blacks in combat, both short and long term?

. . . [T]hey were very much like other men. General Saxton, examining with some impatience a long list of questions from some philanthropic Commission at the North, respecting the traits and habits of the freedmen, bade some staff-officer answer them all in two words,"Intensely human." We all admitted that it was a striking and comprehensive description.

For instance, as to courage. So far as I have seen, the mass of men are naturally courageous up to a certain point. A man seldom runs away from danger which he ought to face, unless others run; each is apt to keep with the mass, and colored soldiers have more than usual of this gregariousness. In almost every regiment, black or white, there are a score or two of men who are naturally daring, who really hunger after dangerous adventures, and are happiest when allowed to seek them. Every commander gradually finds out who these men are, and habitually uses them; certainly I had such, and I remember with delight their bearing, their coolness, and their dash. . . . The mass of the regiment rose to the same level under excitement, and were more excitable, I think, than whites, but neither more nor less courageous.

Perhaps the best proof of a good average of courage among them was in the readiness they always showed for any special enterprise. I do not remember ever to have had the slightest difficulty in obtaining volunteers, but rather in keeping down the number. The previous pages include many illustrations of this, as well as of their endurance of pain and discomfort. . . .

. . . As to the simple general fact of courage and reliability I think no officer in our camp ever thought of there being any difference between black and white. And certainly the opinions of these officers, who for years risked their lives every moment on the fidelity of their men, were worth more than those of all the world beside.

No doubt there were reasons why this particular war was an especially favorable test of the colored soldiers. They had more to fight for than the whites. Besides the flag and the Union, they had home and wife and child. They fought with ropes round their necks, and when orders were issued that the officers of colored troops should be put to death on capture, they took a grim satisfaction. It helped their esprit de corps immensely. . . .