The Fifth Massachusetts Colored Cavalry in the Civil War
Steven M. LaBarre
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 232 pages
Book Review published on: March 2, 2018
“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” the refrain from the Grateful Dead’s song “Truckin,” could easily sum up the experience of the Fifth Massachusetts Colored Cavalry. Steven M. LaBarre has created a captivating history of this New England cavalry regiment’s service during the Civil War. The cast of characters include former slaves, New England abolitionists, sailors, Californians, and the grandson of a former U.S. president. LaBarre provides detailed vignettes that portray the individual lives of the officers and soldiers of the Fifth Massachusetts Colored Cavalry. The journey is not as dramatic as other storied Union Civil War regiments, but its depiction in this book is colorful and represents well the challenges of what was typical of many regiments whose collective contributions were instrumental in achieving Union victory.
The Fifth Massachusetts Colored Cavalry in the Civil War brings out the nuances of manning and equipping the regiment and gives insight to students of history into the dynamics of how the United States built the Grand Army of the Republic in the 1860s. Challenges with leadership, recruiting, and pay are all candidly laid out for the reader. The initial formation and training was a monumental task, and LaBarre provides interesting and relevant details of this endeavor.
LaBarre keeps to a chronological flow that continues with the regiment moving south to begin its service in the field. This field service would take them to the lines near the Appomattox River east of Petersburg, Virginia, where they would have their baptism by fire. Their performance in this fight is presented by LaBarre from several perspectives, both positively and negatively. Regardless of the individual perspectives, the collective picture is telling regarding the regiment’s situation of being trained cavalry employed to fight as infantry. This would be followed by more mundane duties, such as guarding tens of thousands of Confederate prisoners at one of the largest Union prisoner of war camps at Point Lookout, Maryland—a camp that Confederates had hoped to liberate when they moved to threaten Washington, D.C., in July 1864.
In the waning months of the war came the high-water mark for the regiment, when they rode as the lead regiment of the XV Corps into Richmond. This momentous event was shortly followed by the entire corps movement out of the eastern theater in Virginia to the Gulf Coast for service in south Texas. Border security concerns with instability in Mexico and the available service time remaining on their enlistment made the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry an ideal unit for this post-war assignment. After traveling over two thousand miles, the regiment continued its service in Texas through a summer and into the fall before eventually being mustered out at the end of October 1865 in Clarksville, Texas.
While their service came to an end in Texas, their journey continued with a legacy that LaBarre relates through vignettes of the struggles faced by these veterans after their service. The challenges with receiving pension benefits are explained with some examples of success and others of heartbreaking failure. The experience of these soldiers provides lessons for those serving today about remaining committed to the mission and being flexible in the face of change and adversity. The Fifth Massachusetts Colored Cavalry in the Civil War provides breadth and depth to the history of a regiment that contributed honorable and essential service to the Nation. LaBarre does an excellent job with a candid and contemporary historical look at life in a New England regiment of color.
Book Review written by: John Kloeker, U.S. Army, Retired, Wilder, Kentucky