What I’m Reading Now (Out of the Briars)

This is not an image of the edition I read. It’s available free online.

When my friend Jesse Nasta visited the veteran’s writing group, he recommended a book that I’m certain is unfamiliar to most people. A.H. (Alexander Hemitage) Newton published Out of the Briars in 1910. Its subtitle explains both its obscurity and its unique place in the world: “An Autobiographical Sketch of the Twenty-Ninth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers” is the only narrative written by a member of the U.S. Colored Troops to serve from this state. It reinforces my view that if more history were taught from these primary sources, more students would appreciate it.

Reverend Newton (he became an AME Zion pastor after the war) opens with his early life as the son of an enslaved father and free mother in New Bern, North Carolina. Anyone who believes that the life of free blacks in the ante-bellum South was easy will receive an education. And anyone who thinks that black folks, even young ones, acquiesced to whites will be enlightened.

The story of Reverend Newton’s arrival in the North and participation in the 29th form the most captivating portions of the text. The privation suffered by the men – lack of water and food, worn out clothing, may be familiar in a general way, but Reverend Newton makes it vivid.

From his youth, he regretted his lack of education, though his thoughtfulness and deep understanding appear to have compensated until he was able to rectify the situation – and did he ever. Once the war ended, he set about in earnest to learn in a major way, culminating at age 70 with a Ph. D.

Once he learned to write he began to keep a journal and the book is the fruit of that years-long labor. His fellow soldiers turned to him after the war to bolster their own memories. Every unit should have such a person.

He helped establish and build up AME Zion churches in the South despite ferocious attacks from white terrorists. Later he gave time and energy and money to churches in New Jersey and environs, joining his efforts with a number of illustrious men who rose to the upper echelons of the ministry. Despite these successes, Reverend Newton suffered personal tragedy with the loss of two wives and his children.

The autobiography does suffer from excessive name checking and loses momentum after the war ends, but it is nevertheless engrossing and should be required reading in American history courses.

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