In a bold departure from previous scholarship, Le’Trice D. Donaldson locates the often overlooked era between the Civil War and the end of World War I as the beginning of black soldiers’ involvement in the long struggle for civil rights. Donaldson traces the evolution of these soldiers as they used their military service to challenge white notions of an African American second-class citizenry and forged a new identity as freedom fighters willing to demand the rights of full citizenship and manhood.
Through extensive research, Donaldson not only illuminates this evolution but also interrogates the association between masculinity and citizenship and the ways in which performing manhood through military service influenced how these men struggled for racial uplift. Following the Buffalo soldier units and two regular army infantry units from the frontier and the Mexican border to Mexico, Cuba, and the Philippines, Donaldson investigates how these locations and the wars therein provide windows into how the soldiers’ struggles influenced black life and status within the United States.
Continuing to probe the idea of what it meant to be a military race man—a man concerned with the uplift of the black race who followed the philosophy of progress—Donaldson contrasts the histories of officers Henry Flipper and Charles Young, two soldiers who saw their roles and responsibilities as black military officers very differently.
Duty beyond the Battlefield demonstrates that from the 1870s to 1920s military race men laid the foundation for the “New Negro” movement and the rise of Black Nationalism that influenced the future leaders of the twentieth century Civil Rights movement.
I really enjoyed this book, which includes history I haven’t come across before. It’s readable, fascinating, and most definitely is not hagiography. When I first came across this book I was only looking for a history of the all-Black 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments (the famous “Buffalo Soldiers) but Donaldson has provided so much more, including information and analysis of why Black men joined the US Army from 1870 or so all the way to 1920. My only criticism is that I wish it was longer. While Donaldson provides excellent writing on the white supremacist discrimination and violence Black soldiers (and officers) faced, she doesn’t delve too much into what the soldiers felt as they fought against Apache, Filipino, and Mexican fighters in wars that clearly served white supremacist aims. While Donaldson did briefly mention that Filipino fighters preferred Black US troops to white ones because the Black troops didn’t commit atrocities, I felt that these very complex racial issues could have used more elaboration. Otherwise, this was a great book that holds tremendous relevancy for today.
Very informative overview of Black American military service between Reconstruction and WWI, and makes a strong argument about the role of masculinity and citizenship in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, but spreads itself a little thin at times