Book Review: The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship

This handsomely produced, visually stunning book “examines the public’s memory of the Civil War and how the presence and lack of images of black soldiers influence our modern perceptions of the war in the archive.” Carefully curating a vast collection of words and images—letters, diaries, recruitment broadsides, stereographs, family albums, and cartes de visite—author Deborah Willis, the chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, invites readers “to see and hear the world of the black soldiers and the wives and mothers of the Civil War.” It is at once a history of presence and absence—a history of remembering and forgetting.

Building on her own prodigious body of scholarship (especially the book she co-authored with Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation), Willis conceives of photography as an “form of activism” and radical “affirmation of humanity.” Gazing into the camera—no less than narrating battles in personal letters, appealing for pension claims, marching in parades, maintaining collections of relics—was a way for African Americans to “preserve” a memory of their Civil War service and sacrifices. Donning a blue suit, shouldering a musket, clutching the flag, and then sitting for a photograph was a “self-conscious act.” It was a deliberate attempt to imagine their future—and to help that future imagine them.

Proscribed from enlisting as soldiers in the war’s earliest days, African Americans nonetheless “found ways” to serve and support the United States armies. From the beginning, Black men and women served as scouts and spies, piloting the Union armies and navies through the South in nearly every military campaign. They labored in camps and as cooks. They cut military roads, dug latrines, and built earthworks. Black war correspondents plied northern newspapers with fresh copy from the front lines, and Black surgeons (such as Seth Rogers of the 33rd United States Colored Troops) tended to the wounded. Willis documents the urgent zeal with which Black men and women yearned to contribute to the Union war effort. As David W. Blight has written, they “knew what time it was.” Once permitted to enlist, they rallied to the cause in great numbers. Nearly 200,000 African Americans would serve in the United States armies and navies during the Civil War. Free Blacks and the formerly enslaved would constitute fully ten percent of the Union armies and navies.

To assemble this book, Willis mined major archival repositories—including important collections of African American history and photography at the Library of Congress and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Students of the Civil War will recognize many of the key voices amplified here, including the African American educator and diarist Charlotte Forten; the Philadelphia-based war correspondent Thomas Morris Chester; and Spottswood Rice, the U.S. soldier who penned a scorching letter to his daughter’s enslaver in September 1864. But the book teems with the words and images of lesser-known participant actors as well.

Willis amply documents that African Americans became the self-appointed custodians of the Civil War’s history and legacy. They keenly understood the documentary power of photography. The “quiet dignity” captured in the photograph of a Black Civil War veteran communicated a message at once eloquent and enduring. Memory scholars have well documented the efforts of Black writers and historians like George Washington Williams, Joseph Wilson, and Carter Woodson to translate the past into prose. But memory was not just textual. As Willis points out, “mass produced photographs” of Black Civil War soldiers—no less than bullet-riddled banners, empty coat sleeves, and rows of graves—became powerful sites of memory.

Together with recent scholarship from Amy Murrell Taylor, Thavolia Glymph, Jill Newmark, and Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr., this book “help[s] us grapple with a history that has often excluded stories about the bravery of black soldiers and the uncelebrated work of black women teachers and nurses.”

The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship

By Deborah Willis

New York University Press, 2021. $35 hardcover

Reviewed by Brian Matthew Jordan

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