'Black resistance endured': paying tribute to civil war soldiers of color

By Nadja Sayej

A classic tintype photo from the 19th century showing a civil war soldier, whose garments are hand-colored in gold paint. The soldier, crowned by a gold frame, looks forward, holding a gun over his chest.

But rather than just any war portrait, it’s part of the overlooked history of African American soldiers who fought during the period. This one and more are featured in a new book called The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship.

The book features more than 70 images of black soldiers who fought in the civil war, alongside handwritten letters, recruitment posters, old newspaper clippings and personal journal entries. One recruitment poster from 1863 reads: “Men of color to arms!”

“The archive speaks,” writes the book’s author, Deborah Willis, a photo historian and New York University professor. “If we search, if we listen, it can reveal worlds of brutality and kindness, of shame and glory. In this book, I want you to see and hear the world of the black soldiers and the wives and mothers of the civil war.”

The book aims to bring these stoic portraits of black soldiers to life – with personal stories, to family members back home, and interviews with historians and personal observations from a skilled photography expert. It’s what Willis calls the African American experience, as well as resilience.

Unidentified African American soldier in Union corporal’s uniform.
Unidentified African American soldier in a Union corporal’s uniform. Photograph: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Divisio

This book tells tales of courage, discrimination, pay inequalities and heroism. “By examining diary pages, letters and news items, I want to build on the stories that each of their portraits tell,” she said to the Guardian. “To focus a lens on their hopefulness and the sense of what could be won from loss.”

The civil war, waged from 1861 to 1865, began in a divided America after a dispute over slavery. While Abraham Lincoln was president, it was fought between the northern states (Union soldiers) and the southern states (Confederate), who were pro-slavery. After the Union defeated the Confederate states, slavery was abolished across the country during the Reconstruction era that followed – but of course, the actual narrative is not that simple.

“I used to hear often about the civil war that the north won the war, but the south won the narrative,” said Willis, referring to how African Americans were depicted in pop culture and films like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. “Both were acts of preserving the triumph narrative and restaging events from the civil war and American slavery.”

When the war began in 1861, black soldiers weren’t allowed to fight. That changed when Lincoln freed slaves and allowed them to join the Union army as part of the United States Colored Troops. Black and minority soldiers were led by white officers. “As a photo historian, I question invisibility, and through family stories, private and public archives we can see a broader history,” adds Willis.

Roughly 179,000 men fought as part of the troops, with 37,000 dying in battle, and many of the surviving black soldiers winning honors and medals in the navy and army, as this book reveals.

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform. Photograph: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Considering photography was still new at the time, the civil war was one of the first major conflicts to be documented in such a vivid way. It helped create “a national vision of blackness and war,” Willis writes in the book, which retells the story of black lives during the war – which has been seen, but not necessarily heard.

The photos in the book include unidentified black soldiers, alongside a portrait of Sget Tom Strawn from the US Colored Troops’ Heavy Artillery Regiment, another shows a group of soldiers, who were known as the Tenth Army Corps, a Union regiment of escaped slaves. They stand together in South Carolina, posing for a photo in 1864.

The book includes a portrait of Harriet Tubman, a photograph of Charles Douglass (Frederick Douglass’s son) and Lincoln standing with Union army soldiers.

There are also shots of black hospital workers in Nashville in 1863, and a portrait of Thomas Morris Chester, the first black war correspondent for a major daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Press, from 1870.

“I wanted to personalize it by including pages from diaries and highlighting letters written by black soldiers and their mothers who wrote to Abraham Lincoln expressing their desire to fight, while mothers demanded their sons received equal pay and treatment,” said Willis. “Free black men and women contributed in various ways by teaching, nursing and practicing medicine. Who knew nine black surgeons served during the war?”

Many of the portraits were taken so soldiers could send them back home with letters to their wives, mothers and daughters (many of the photos are sourced from museum collections, like the Library of Congress and the National Archives, among others, as well as university collections).

Portrait of an unidentified African American soldier.
Portrait of an unidentified African American soldier. Photograph: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Today, the African American Civil War Museum in Washington pays tribute to the largely ignored historic contribution that black troops (over 200,000) made to the civil war, by fighting for freedom from slavery, as do several other museums.

“The photographs became the visual evidence that slavery happened, and black resistance endured,” said Willis. “This book weaves a narrative on the history of American photography during its early years, with iconic moments of the southern landscape, letter writing, the Works Progress Administration slave narratives and first-hand accounts of experiences.”

The history of the lives of black soldiers was erased with racism and prejudice in the years that followed. “Who controls the narrative?” asks Willis. “Black and white historians spent decades researching and publishing on this era.”

Just like the image on the cover of the book, depicting one black soldier, his stoic gaze represents more than what most can see. Each tintype portrait of these black civil war soldiers was symbolic.

“They had to stand in front of the camera and to be photographed, to be depicted as men who had made a choice – a choice of freedom,” said Willis. “As soon as they were given uniforms, from forage caps to weapons, many posed holding their weapons. The visual narrative suggests their commitment to fight for freedom for all bonded people.”