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Rarely-seen photos tell the story of America's Black Civil War soldiers

Published 26th July 2021
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Rarely-seen photos tell the story of America's Black Civil War soldiers
Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN
Contributors Oscar Holland, CNN
The emancipation of slaves is central to the story of the American Civil War. But as curator and photographic historian Deborah Willis discovered growing up in the 1950s and '60s, the Black people who served in the conflict are often ignored by the history books.
As she would later learn, almost 180,000 Black soldiers fought for the North in the name of ending slavery. By the end of the war, a tenth of the Union Army was made up of free African American men.
"When Black soldiers were fighting for their emancipation, they were fighting for not only their own (freedom), but that of their families and other Black people," Willis said in a video interview. "They felt the cause was necessary to fight."
By the end of the war in 1865, 40,000 Black Union soldiers had been killed, of whom three-quarters had died from infection or disease. Many of their individual stories have been lost, but Willis' research uncovered moving tales of Black love, patriotism and bravery. Her recently published book, "The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship," shines a light on these forgotten soldiers and their families through a rich archive of rarely-seen photographs.
A carte de visite of Lieutenant Peter Vogelsang, who served with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
A carte de visite of Lieutenant Peter Vogelsang, who served with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
"Erasure appears in many ways," said Willis, who is a professor and department chair at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
In the case of thousands of African American Civil War soldiers, she explained, their narratives weren't "hidden" -- they were shared in diaries and letters. Many Black soldiers also paid to have photographic portraits taken that depicted them as patriotic free men. They can be seen dressed in military regalia, posing proudly with the American flag or holding the weapons they fought with.
In her book, Willis presents almost 100 of the images, which date from the 1840s to 1860s, alongside family correspondence and news articles, offering an intimate account of the conflict. She also included the stories of Black medical workers, servants and cooks -- including those in the South, where thousands of enslaved African Americans were taken to war as laborers or forced to serve White soldiers.
Willis' book challenges readers to bear witness to their varied experiences.
"I wanted this book to be kind of a memory album of sorts -- the memory of the individuals who wrote articles in the newspapers or who wrote diaries and diary entries, but also (those) who shared the visual experience of photography," she said.
African American hospital workers, including nurses, at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, July 1863.
African American hospital workers, including nurses, at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, July 1863. Credit: National Archives

A new medium

Early cameras first arrived in the United States in 1839, and by the time the Civil War began in 1861, commercial photography was taking off.
Before leaving for war, some soldiers took portraits with loved ones as mementos in the event they didn't return. One picture in Willis' book, set in a romantic brass frame, shows a husband and wife sitting beside each other. Another shows a saber-wielding soldier sitting beside his wife, who is dressed in a voluminous gown.
Commercial photographers also set up temporary studios in tents near the army camps, creating what Willis called "spaces for people to reimagine themselves." Soldiers would sometimes get photos taken to send home to their families, folding them up with love letters or notes sent home from the front lines.
"We don't talk about Black love in the 19th century," Willis said. "We talk about survival which is, yes, a part of it. But having an opportunity to see a love story that's a mother and son, or a patriotic story of a man who's interested in his citizenship and freedom -- that kind of love is something I wanted to explore in this book."
Portrait of an unidentified African American soldier in uniform, c. 1860s.
Portrait of an unidentified African American soldier in uniform, c. 1860s. Credit: Library of Congress
While the Union's Black soldiers were fighting for the same cause as their White counterparts, their platoons remained segregated. So, too, were the war's makeshift photography studios. "There were certain days that Black people could go into studios, and on Thursdays and Saturdays at midday, (they) would say, 'coloreds only,'" Willis said. "And then other days were open to Whites."
In the South, meanwhile, African Americans had hardly any opportunity to be photographed -- and not only because of their status in the Confederacy. Early camera equipment was not readily available in Southern states, Willis writes in her book, and the few photographers there raised their fees "to compensate for the high prices of photographic materials and the inflated Confederate dollar."

'Significance of the moment'

The uncovered photographs include ambrotypes, images made on chemically treated glass plates, and tintypes, a much faster innovation that imprinted pictures onto thin metal sheets dipped in a silver nitrate solution. Some of these photographs appear in elaborate protective cases lined with red velvet or brass frames engraved with American flags, eagles and stars.
An early form of paper photograph known as a "carte de visite," which was often used as a formal calling card, was also increasingly popular in the Civil War era. Examples in Willis' book include portraits of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who served in the Union Army and rescued enslaved people through a secretive network called the Underground Railroad; Nicholas Biddle, a Black man believed to be the first person wounded in the conflict after a racist mob hurled a brick at him; and Thomas Morris Chester, the first African American war correspondent for a major daily newspaper.
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, who rescued enslaved people during the American Civil War.
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, who rescued enslaved people during the American Civil War. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photographers typically charged between 25 cents and $2.50 ($6 to $60 in today's money), depending on the size of the image, according to Willis' research. There were additional fees for hand-painted details, such as an American flag.
Given that Black Northern soldiers were paid less than their White counterparts -- just $10 per month, with a further $3 deducted for uniforms, compared to the $13 and free clothing enjoyed by White soldiers -- having a photograph taken was relatively expensive. It was thus a "self-conscious act," Willis wrote, adding that it "shows the subjects were aware of the significance of the moment and sought to preserve it."
For Willis, however, the pictures and stories are as much to do with the present as the past. The historian hopes to help younger generations visualize "a broader story" about Black people's role in the Civil War, sharing experiences of Black American history that go beyond the narratives of slavery.
"The absence of those stories dehumanizes young people," she said, adding: "How can they reflect on the past without creating a future for themselves if it's only about a struggle?"
"The Black Civil War Soldier: A History of Conflict and Citizenship," published by New York University Press, is available now.