Imperial Reconstructions: Black Soldiers and the Conquest of a Continent, 1865–80

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 3:10 PM
Salon B (Hilton Atlanta)
A. Hope McGrath, University of Pennsylvania
In 1866, Congress authorized the creation of six regiments of African-American soldiers in the U.S. army. These black regulars, many of whom had served as volunteers in the Civil War, were stationed across the country, but most ended up serving in the trans-Mississippi West, helping the federal government crush resistance from hostile Native American tribes. In a grim irony, the same nation that had recently fought a war freeing four million slaves quickly turned its military personnel, including some freed slaves, to the task of western conquest.

This paper examines the experience of black regulars in the aftermath of the Civil War. It looks in particular at the non-combat labor black troops performed. Key players in the twin dramas of emancipation and conquest, black soldiers did work that helped fuel the global expansion of capitalism and imperialism. Drawing on insights from W.E.B. du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, the paper argues that black soldiers highlight both the promise and limitations of what is best understood as the “Imperial Reconstruction” of the United States in the late-nineteenth century.

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