Although we’re focusing on “Great Defenses of the Civil War” at the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge this year, we asked Kelly Mezurek to put her own spin on it as she considered the theme. Kelly has been researching and writing about the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The result promises to be fascinating: “‘Rebel Soldiers and Darkies on Guard over Them!’: Race, Retaliation, and Black Soldiers as Civil War Sentinels.”
“Union leadership used the USCT to transfer Confederate prisoners of war and placed black soldiers to serve as guards in northern prisons for multiple reasons, each dependent upon circumstances at the time,” Kelly explains. “Although attitudes and beliefs about racial difference affected the decisions, the immediate wartime needs had more influence on which black regiments served as guards.”
Officials did not necessarily choose black troops for sentinel duty because they were “second-rate soldiers,” as some people have argued. “The addition of the USCT who worked alongside the less-than-desirable Union soldiers therefore alters the picture of the Northern guard population,” Kelly argues. “This requires us to question if the command’s decisions concerning who should guard and transfer Confederate prisoners of war were based solely on the need to free healthier and more battle-ready soldiers from noncombat roles. While race was an integral part of the choices to assign black regiments, it was not always due to assumptions of the inferiority or inequality of the soldiers in the USCT.”
Kelly says the Union decision to use black guards affected the exchange breakdown, compliance with the Lieber Code, and implications for postwar relations.
“The inclusion of black sentinels in prison and prisoner of war histories contributes to our understanding of the means and methods of retaliatory measures used in the war,” she adds, “especially the humiliation of the enemy. And importantly, it also demonstrates a greater variety of experiences and contributions of black soldiers during the Civil War.”
Kelly is an associate professor at Walsh University, where she teaches United States history. Her book, For their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops (2016), is available from The Kent State University Press. Her essay, “‘De Bottom Rails on Top Now’: Black Union Guards and Confederate Prisoners of War,” will be included in Civil War Prisons II (forthcoming 2017), a collections edited by Michael P. Gray. Mezurek is on the advisory board for the Emerging Civil War Book Series with the Southern Illinois University Press, is a speaker for the Ohio Humanities Speakers Bureau, and served as a member of the Ohio CW 150 Advisory Committee.
Tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 4-6, 2017, are available for $125 (order here). They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of the Brandy Station battlefield.