Black Soldiers and the Civil War

Historians in the News
tags: books, Civil War, military history, African American history

Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation enabled African American men to enlist in the Union army in 1863, Alexander Thomas Augusta stood before the president of the Army Medical Board. As an African American man who left the United States due to racial discrimination and then earned a medical degree in Canada, Augusta returned to his home country and resolved to assist freedpeople and Black soldiers. He passed the Union military’s medical exam, enlisted as the nation’s then-highest ranking Black officer, and served his country. Reproductions of Dr. Augusta’s portrait, as well as his letter to President Abraham Lincoln that specified his determination to support the Union cause and set into motion his military service, are just a few of the several hundred primary documents reproduced in Deborah Willis’s recently published book, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship.

The dozens of photographs between its covers testify to a rich visual record of African Americans’ participation in the Civil War. Part of her motivation to publish the images and stories of these men and their supporters, Willis writes, is due to other scholars not having shared them in previously published works. Some of the images of uniformed African American service members will be familiar to readers while many others have rarely, if ever, been published.1 The book is one of several recent publications that highlights the visual culture of the Civil War and a growing number of books that specifically urge readers to learn how African Americans and women helped determine the war’s trajectory.2

Drawn from archives and private collections across the country, the portraits in Willis’s book convey the pride and dedication of African American soldiers in the face of numerous obstacles. What’s more, the images provide faces and names while Willis delivers provocative background context and tells their personal stories as a means of keeping their memories alive. Themes of freedom, resilience, and the quest for full citizenship connect the book’s chapters, which move chronologically in line with the war’s progression. Throughout, we see how the debates concerning freedom and citizenship – in image and text – among and about African Americans changed as well.

While readers’ eyes will be drawn to the glossy pages of beautifully reproduced images, the diary entries, letters, and legal testimony within the book provide another layer of memories that illuminates the dangers and heartache behind the proud photographs. What comes into focus is the soldiers’ multifaceted personalities. We are given clear insight into their motivations for fighting, the difficulties they faced, and the obstacles they encountered when seeking fair and equal treatment on and off the battlefield. Letters record the bitter frustration that African Americans experienced when the Union army paid them less than their white counterparts, causing their families to suffer. Others recorded the terrors of war and the unease of waiting for battle. Some recorded the exuberance of freedom when they marched into Richmond and helped emancipate its enslaved population. Many expressed deep familial responsibilities and concern for their wives and children. These characteristics are not readily discerned in most of the military portraits throughout the book, thus emphasizing Willis’s intent to portray these men as complex individuals whose military service was but one part of their identities. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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