The Sergeant: The Incredible Life of Nicholas Said – Son of an African General, Slave of the Ottomans, Free Man Under the Tsars, Hero of the Union Army. By Dean Calbreath. New York: Pegasus Books, 2023. Hardcover, 400 pp. $29.95.
Reviewed by Meg Groeling
In keeping with Emerging Civil War’s dedication to illuminating unsung Civil War era personalities, author Dean Calbreath gives us a new name: Nicholas Said, pronounced “Sah-eed.” Said’s early life was spent in both Africa and Europe and saw him evolve from the pampered son of a rich and powerful military general in Borno, Africa, to the valet du chambre of Russian nobleman Prince Nicholas Trubetzkoy. Said spoke several languages fluently, was well-dressed, and literate. He had traveled much of Africa, the Middle East, and Russia by the time he first visited the United States.
In late 1859, while in the employment of Isaac Jacob Rochussen, Said left England and arrived in New York City in early 1860. His first experience with American racism came when the New York Church of the Puritans attempted to segregate him to the balcony. The incident appeared in city newspapers, which created an embarrassing situation for the church’s minister, George Cheever, a noted abolitionist. In an act of deception, Rochussen abandoned Said in the Virgin Islands. While there, he received financial assistance from the local Anglican Church, as well as advice to go to Detroit, Michigan, for new opportunities.
Calbreath explains that South Carolina’s attack on Fort Sumter, turned out to be “one of the key turning points” in Said’s life. (103) Said tried to enlist within days of the historic event only to receive an offer to work in the kitchen at Fort Wayne, a training center south of Detroit. After finding employment as a teacher, and then following President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which set policy for recruiting Black men, Said decided to enlist. Boarding a train in Detroit in early June 1863, he made his way to Boston and became a member of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, a United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment that maintained its state designation.
Said’s life experience, education, and leadership skills probably speeded his promotion to sergeant in the 55th. He soon became a bit of a celebrity, receiving mentions in newspapers for his intellectual accomplishments and cosmopolitan past. Sgt. Said’s service with the 55th highlights issues of discrimination common to USCT regiments. Often receiving a disproportionate amount of fatigue duty, unequal pay, and a lack of promotion opportunities to the commissioned officer level left many Black men frustrated.
Calbreath weaves a compelling narrative around Said’s army life, which encompasses the majority of the book. Often, the 55th Massachusetts is eclipsed in histories by its more well-known and predecessor Black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, but in The Sergeant, Calbreath allows readers to see the interior workings of the 55th as a respected USCT unit deserving its own acclaim. Calbreath also details Said’s work with 55th assistant surgeon, Dr. Burt Wilder, who spent much of his time helping the ever-growing freedmen refugees who flowed into areas of Union army occupation.
Following his discharge, Said worked for the US Sanitary Commission, continuing to help Dr. Wilder and Dr. William Brown. Said settled in South Carolina after the war, teaching freedmen in a makeshift school on a rural plantation. He successfully received the job of Registrar of Voters in 1867. Said’s teaching skills earned him the nickname “The Negro Pundit.” Lecturing about his past and teaching school took him to Alabama and Tennessee where he eventually settled. Although he wrote The Autobiography of Nicholas Said, published in 1873, the book did not sell well. Eventually, the world lost track of this amazing man. His death’s truth is unknown. Nicholas Said’s inspiring life remained unexamined until the relatively recent rediscovery of his autobiography, which prompted Calbreath to write The Sergeant.
Calbreath’s thorough examination of Said’s early life sheds important light on the slave trade as practiced at that time in Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean under Muslim values. Calbreath uses Said’s autobiography as an invaluable primary source to inform this biography.[i] He also incorporates a wealth of period newspaper articles, published speeches, military records, and letters to flesh out Said’s life and corroborate the autobiography. One of The Sergeant’s greatest assets is that it illustrates for readers the diverse backgrounds of the soldiers who served in many USCT regiments.
Biography as a historical genre can sometimes be problematic. However, using an individual like Said as a spotlight to help tell the story of the United States Colored Troops can also be a very effective tool in expanding the public’s understanding of African American Civil War military service. Nicholas Said is a subject certainly worthy of examination and Calbreath’s experience as an investigative journalist adds to the readability of The Sergeant. Books such as this one should serve as model about the importance of providing context to their subject matter, something sometimes lacking in military history. The Sergeant is a welcome addition to USCT scholarship. Both casual and serious students will appreciate Nicholas Said’s fascinating life story.