When I have a lazy evening, I like to wander through the files of photographs on the Library of Congress website. The rain drummed outside, its even cadence echoing the drums of war from long past years. I decided to look at photographs of African Americans – soldiers and civilians – from the Civil War era.
To wonder about their stories. To remember their courage. To learn and write and share through a photographic essay and carefully chosen words.
“Is he not a man?” – One of the rallying cries of the abolition movements in Britain and the United States. Here he stands. Labelled “Contraband of War.” Formerly enslaved. Now looking at his future. In ragged clothes and fiercely proud. Saddened eyes, but unbowed shoulders. Here is a man. A free man ready to rewrite his history, create his own life.
Though different men, the pose is similar and unforgettably different between the “Contraband” and this Union soldier. Bold, confident – he dares the world to deny freedom.
“We do believe that such soldiers, if allowed now to take up arms in defence [defense] of the Government, and made to feel that they are hereafter to be recognized as persons having rights, would set the highest example of order and general good behavior to their fellow soldiers, and in way add to the national power…”
Frederick Douglass, September 1861
Here she sits. Alone. Staring with eyes that have seen hardship. Arms that have ached, hands that have toiled. Were her children torn from her embrace in slavery? Did she send her sons to war for the Union?
Her dress may be plain, but she loves pretty things – notice her lace collar. She may be alone, she may have suffered, but she sits regally – queen-like – ready to meet whatever comes next. In freedom.
They seem to wonder why they are being photographed. Some looked worried or ashamed. Perhaps freedom is still not all they dreamed it would be. As teamsters for the Union army, these men undoubtedly heard racist remarks, maybe even threats from an army and society that was still a long way from offering civil rights to all.
And here they stand. Stand. Not kneeling. Not chained. Stand. Gazing into the bright daylight, gazing into an uncertain freedom. Wondering what it holds for them.
Unidentified. It’s a heartbreaking word, really. It means someone didn’t take the time to write their names or there wasn’t time to learn their identity before they were buried in earth’s history. However, when we have photographs labeled “unidentified,” we at least have faces. People. A memory. Even if don’t know about their lives.
Were these two men brothers? Certain, brothers in arms. In their sergeant uniforms, they wait for just a moment at the photographer’s. Together, their image was captured. Together, they drilled or fought. Together, they forged liberty.
“Free forever” oh! long enslaved millions, whose cries have so vexed the air and sky, suffer on a few more days in sorrow, the hour of your deliverance draws nigh! Oh! ye millions of free and loyal men who have earnestly sought to free your bleeding country from the dreadful ravages of revolution and anarchy, lift up your voices with joy and thanksgiving for with freedom to the slave will come peace and safety to your country.
Frederick Douglass, January 1863
And those stories of courage, a fight for freedom, a promise of liberty became the stories – the noble heritage – these men and women passed to their children. Gifted to a nation that still took years to honor and remember their sacrifices and dreams.