Thunder at the Gates
The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America
Douglas R. Egerton
Basic Books, New York, 2016, 448 pages
Book Review published on: June 8, 2018
From the establishment of two separate governments representing the North and South to brothers fighting brothers, no history recounted could be more compelling than the African American regiments of the 54th and 55th Infantry and the 5th Cavalry from Massachusetts. In Thunder at the Gates, author Douglas R. Egerton does a brilliant job at laying out the tribulations of these regiments as he depicts the battles that these heroic men fought in as well as their fight for legitimacy against racism, bigotry, and equality.
Egerton expertly crafts the arguments why these soldiers enlisted: political, financial, the abolishment of slavery, or simply patriotism. These men ultimately filled the roles of 178,975 soldiers, composing one-twelfth of all soldiers who fought for the United States—145 infantry regiments, seven cavalry units, thirteen artillery groups, and one engineer battalion—and ultimately fought in forty-one major battles and 449 smaller engagements. Often overlooked were the 2,751 killed in action and the 65,427 who died of disease or went missing, as well as the heroism of seventeen soldiers who received the Medal of Honor.
Egerton does a masterful job at narrating the battles in which these regiments took part. The bloodiest and most influential was the siege of Charleston’s Fort Wagner in July 1863. The 54th fought heroically, suffering an incredible amount of casualties yet proving to the Nation that they were as brave and as capable as their counterparts.
Thunder at the Gates is the standard on the subject, an achievement that will help shape further understanding of African American soldiers during the Civil War. Certainly, the 54th, along with the other units, was a point of great pride for the black community. Civil rights leaders often looked back at the valor and patriotism of these men, using their service as a rallying cry for equality throughout the twentieth century. In fact, I found it interesting that even in the two world wars, arguments were still being made about the valor and ability of these regiments. Instead of using them as service regiments, many argued they should have been allowed to fight for their country as they had expertly done in the Civil War.
Thunder at the Gates is exceptionally well researched and written, and provides a complete picture on the 54th and 55th Infantry and 5th Cavalry history, lineage, and exploits. It is a must read for anyone interested in these regiments from Massachusetts and their gallant fight to win acceptance during America’s Civil War.
Book Review written by: Col. James L. Davis, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas