Giesberg on Taylor, 'Fighting for Citizenship: Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War'

Brian Taylor
Judith Giesberg

Brian Taylor. Fighting for Citizenship: Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War. Civil War America Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 248 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5977-0; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-5976-3; $22.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4696-5978-7.

Reviewed by Judith Giesberg (Villanova University) Published on H-CivWar (March, 2021) Commissioned by Stefanie Greenhill

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In Fighting for Citizenship: Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War, Brian Taylor offers the astonishing statistic that “more than 70 percent of the black males of military age living in states in which slavery had ended before the Civil War” served in the US Army during the Civil War (p. 94). This enthusiasm for donning the blue uniform tracks with the scholarly consensus about Black military service, that it was considerable and consequential and that it helped lead to an inclusive definition of citizenship. Frederick Douglass famously said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” This book seeks to complicate this story by exploring the skeptics, holdouts, and dissenters in Northern Black communities—men who cautioned against enlisting before the terms of Black service were clear and knotty questions about Black citizenship were answered. This is a worthwhile endeavor and Taylor makes a good case for why we should open our eyes to the diversity of opinion about military service among African Americans in the North. Although we have focused attention on recruiters, we have overlooked evidence that they faced pressing questions from skeptical Black men in the North. Here Taylor does good work drawing out these challenges and shows how recruiters handled awkward questions and how they at times questioned the legitimacy of the messages they were delivering to free Black men about why they should risk their lives on behalf of a nation that promised them little in return.

But this very promising book has some rough spots. To start, the book’s thesis drifts. Taylor’s central claim is that Black soldiers forced the United States to recognize Black citizenship, rights, and equality. They achieved this through a “politics of service” that was articulated in the Black press in the form of debates about whether and when Black men should enlist and in recruitment rallies where attendees shouted back at recruiters, and, when enlisted in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), Black soldiers pressed for pay equity among other things. This process of redefining citizenship through Black military service—or the promise/potential thereof—scored two victories early in the war. The first came in the Militia Act of July 1862, when Congress removed the word “white” from the description of military eligibility, and the second in November 1862, when Attorney General Edward Bates issued an opinion that brushed aside Dred Scott to declare American citizenship race blind.[1] So, when Abraham Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation that cleared the way for states to begin recruiting Black troops, his administration clearly signaled their openness to a racially inclusive interpretation of citizenship.

Before Black recruitment began, citizenship was already being redefined, at least for the purposes of filling the Union ranks. (Indeed, in her award-winning study, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America [2018], Martha Jones shows that Black Baltimoreans were contesting their second-class citizenship by the 1780s.) But, for the subjects of Taylor’s book, much more was at stake than that. For the first half of 1863, Black Northerners demanded an end to the US Army’s discriminatory policies, such as denying Black men promotion and paying them less, and a response to Confederate threats to execute Black prisoners of war. Some men made their enlistment decisions contingent on the answers to these questions. How many did? We will never know, but surely the high enlistment rate that Taylor quotes is proof of his own claim “that by 1863 opponents of immediate military service were in the minority among black Northerners, although they remained a substantial, vocal minority” (p. 93). Even so, it is a curious claim to make in a book that asserts that these opponents were responsible for changing the definition of American citizenship.

Here is where some of the drift sets in. By 1863, most of the skeptics, holdouts, and dissenters had enlisted or were busy enlisting others, so Taylor shifts focus to a discussion of how Black men fought on battlefields not only to save the nation but also to “refound” it, that is, to change it from within the ranks of the army, to force the nation to live up to its ideals (p. 97). This suggests that the “politics of service” lasted only as long as Black men were potential soldiers—until 1863—and not actual ones. It is not clear, either, if the distinction between those who embraced immediate enlistment and those who dragged their feet mattered once they were all in the ranks. I also wondered if it mattered if the men who were striking for equal pay were Northern Blacks or the numerically more significant Southern Blacks. Were they not all fighting for a new nation? Then, once the war was won, Black veterans “sought more” than the concessions they had managed to extract in the form of the Bates opinion, and so they took to the papers, organized in convention, and sometimes ran for office to lobby for amendments that guaranteed an expansive, egalitarian American citizenship (p. 131).

There is more drift in the conclusion when Taylor explains that “Civil War-era black activists forced otherwise unwilling white officials to specifically define black men and women as American citizens,” for women do not figure into the study, which is about how Black men leveraged their potential military service to get concessions from the federal government, hopefully lasting ones, like equal pay and equal protection (p. 149). What exactly Taylor means by citizenship is not clear, but here Taylor claims that “it was never black Northerners’ intention, as they debated service, to use it to win citizenship only for veterans and their families; they had meant for service to win lasting gains for all African Americans” (p. 155). It may have been Northern activists’ intention to employ the politics of service to extract a new definition of citizenship that was inclusive of women as well as men, but we would need to have had that introduced to us at the beginning. We know a great deal about the potentially tragic consequences to Black families, free and enslaved, when husbands and fathers enlisted. These personal considerations likely accounted for as much delayed enlistment as politics. When Black soldiers refused to accept lower pay than whites, their families starved. And, in early congressional conversations about what rights Blacks would gain in the postwar amendments, women entered the picture only as soldiers’ wives. Were Taylor’s activists able to see Black women as deserving of rights beyond those that accrued through their connection to Black soldiers?

These limitations aside, Taylor’s Fighting for Citizenship has done important work for scholars of the Civil War North in complicating the picture of Black enlistment, in making space for dissenting voices within Northern Black communities, and by taking readers inside the work of Black recruitment, where things were not as easy as they might seem.


[1]. James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1866 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), 360-61, 358-60.

Citation: Judith Giesberg. Review of Taylor, Brian, Fighting for Citizenship: Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL:

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