Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America



An intimate, authoritative history of the first black soldiers to fight in the Union Army during the Civil War
Soon after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, abolitionists began to call for the creation of black regiments. At first, the South and most of the North responded with outrage-southerners promised to execute any black soldiers captured in battle, while many northerners claimed that blacks lacked the necessary courage. Meanwhile, Massachusetts, long the center of abolitionist fervor, launched one of the greatest experiments in American history.
In Thunder at the Gates, Douglas Egerton chronicles the formation and battlefield triumphs of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry-regiments led by whites but composed of black men born free or into slavery. He argues that the most important battles of all were won on the field of public opinion, for in fighting with distinction the regiments realized the long-derided idea of full and equal citizenship for blacks.

A stirring evocation of this transformative episode, Thunder at the Gates offers a riveting new perspective on the Civil War and its legacy.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publish Date
November 01, 2016
6.0 X 1.7 X 9.3 inches | 1.55 pounds

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About the Author

Douglas R. Egerton is the Merrill Family Visiting Professor in History at Cornell University and a professor of history at Le Moyne College. The award-winning author of seven previous books, he lives in Fayetteville, New York.


Co-winner of the 2017 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize

"Egerton brings the stories of three black regiments together, exploring their origins, their wartime service, and the post-war lives of their soldiers and officers... This is a deeply and impeccably researched work....Egerton's is a brisk and personable narrative history that will reach a wide audience, with its vivid portraits of lives both on and off the battlefield."--2017 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize committee
"Egerton presents a captivating narrative.... [His] study of the individuals and attention to their lives after the war is extremely well researched and well documented. This is an important addition to the shelves of Civil War books."--Library Journal, starred review
"Poignant... artfully told and wonderfully detailed."--Paul Jablow, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Fascinating.... Reading this book will help you understand why, even in 2016, there is a Black Lives Matter movement."--Donald D. Breed, Providence Journal
"[Thunder at the Gates] is a brutally honest, comprehensive account of [the African American regiments'] contributions and an excellent addition to Civil War collections."--Booklist, starred review
"[A] solid addition to the Civil War literature...Providing a fuller picture of black men's involvement in the war, Egerton weaves in the activities of the [54th and] 55th Volunteer Infantry Division and the Fifth Cavalry. He emphasizes the way race affected the men's military experiences, looking as much at individual black soldiers as white officers.... Egerton's fine work pays respect to the black soldiers who fought and died black liberation."--Publishers Weekly
"Thunder at the Gates is the first book to provide a full account of the three black regiments raised by Massachusetts in the Civil War. The 54th's famous assault on Fort Wagner is here, but so also are many other campaigns and battles fought by that regiment, the 55th, and the 5th Cavalry. The narrative is enriched by the stories of more than a dozen individual soldiers and officers, which gives a human and personal dimension to this important work."--James M. McPherson
"[M]asterful.... Some of the best military writing I have encountered."--Joseph C. Gouldon, Washington Times
"The magic in this story...comes from the author's ability to build empathy for the soldiers...In Thunder at the Gates, Egerton has memorialized these brave patriot soldiers and the legacy they left for their ancestors--a legacy for us all to treasure as a part of our collective heritage."--Michael Ramsey, Roanoke Times
"Gracefully written and well-researched, Thunder at the Gates is an indispensable chronicle of the triumphs and tribulations of three regiments of black soldiers who fought to destroy legalized slavery and helped preserve the American Union. Egerton's powerful narrative allows the men, and the families who supported them, to live in our imaginations just as they should."--Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, with Peter S. Onuf, of "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs": Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination