Civil War portraits reveal variety of black soldiers

African-Americans shown at a turning point in U.S. history

CorrespondentOctober 20, 2012 

  • Nonfiction African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album Ronald S. Coddington Johns Hopkins University Press, 338 pages

In his Jan. 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln included a sentence decreeing that slaves freed under the president’s edict would “be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” As Lincoln explained, “military necessity” transformed the conflict from a constitutional struggle to a war of black liberation and military emancipation.

Ronald S. Coddington’s “African American Faces of the Civil War” is a stunning album of 77 portrait photographs – cartes de visite, ambrotypes and tintypes – of former slaves and free blacks who joined the Union war effort in various capacities. The handsomely reproduced photographs underscore the centrality of race and masculinity for those blacks who donned Union blue.

Coddington, assistant managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education and a collector of Civil War photographs, is the author of two similar works: “Faces of the Confederacy” and “Faces of the Civil War.” Each includes precisely documented archival portraits and carefully researched informal biographies of the subjects, almost all of whom remain obscure. Most of the images have never been published before.

Locating and identifying wartime photographs and documenting the biographies of men of color who served with Union forces proved to be extraordinarily difficult tasks. The development of inexpensive commercial photography in the Civil War era allowed soldiers and sailors, black and white, to have their pictures taken to send home to be saved, shared and displayed. But images of black servicemen, many of whom had just emerged from slavery, remain extremely scarce.

To remedy this problem, Coddington conducted research in museums, archives, private collections and online. Piecing together each soldier or sailor’s personal story required micro-research in hard-to-find newspapers, manuscripts, and military and pension records.

Collectively, the images underscore the diverse personalities of the African-American servicemen, at least as captured by the photographer’s lens. Most probably had never had their picture taken before. In his perceptive foreword to Coddington’s book, historian J. Matthew Gallman observes correctly that the men’s body language “suggests strong individualism rather than the imposition of some sort of military discipline.”

The images also attest to the black subjects’ broad range of wartime experiences – from garrison and fatigue duty to combat.

One tintype captures Pvt. John Goosberry, a free black Canadian sailor who served as a musician in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. An ambrotype rescues from oblivion Landsman Charles F. Redding, U.S. Navy, an original crewmember of the U.S.S. Kearsage, which sank the Confederate raider Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in June 1864. Sgt. William Harvey Carney’s carte de visite and biography tell the story of a soldier whose heroism at South Carolina’s Fort Wagner in July 1863 earned him the nation’s highest military accolade – the Medal of Honor.

Another image is a remarkable tintype of Sgt. Andrew Chandler, a Confederate soldier, posed with Silas, a slave who accompanied him to war as a body servant. According to family lore, Silas’ devotion to his young master prevented Chandler from having a leg amputated by Confederate surgeons. Silas’ great-granddaughter, however, interpreted the story of the black Confederate differently. “He was taken into a war for a cause he didn’t believe in. He was dressed up like a Confederate soldier for reasons that may never be known.”

Coddington’s “African American Faces of the Civil War” provides a unique visual record, quite literally documenting the faces of war at a transitional moment in U.S. history. Lincoln’s black warriors helped to overthrow slavery and to restore the Union. Their descendants spent the next century fighting new battles for true equality.

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. With Patricia Bellis Bixel he co-authored the forthcoming “Seeing the New South: Race and Place in the Photographs of Ulrich B. Phillips.”

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