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The rarely seen photos tell the story of the soldiers of the American Black Civil War

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Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN

Collaborators Oscar Holland, CNN

The emancipation of slaves is central to the history of the American Civil War. But, as curator and photographic historian Deborah Willis, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, discovered, history books often ignore the blacks who served in the conflict.

As I would later learn, almost 180,000 Black soldiers fought for the north in the name of ending slavery. By the end of the war, one-tenth of the Union’s army was made up of free African-American men.

“When black soldiers fought for their emancipation, they fought not only for their own (freedom), but for that of their families and other black people,” Willis said in a video interview. “They believed the cause was necessary to fight.”

At the end of the war in 1865, 40,000 Black Union soldiers they had been killed, three-quarters of whom had died of infection or disease. Many of his individual stories have been lost, but Willis ’research uncovered moving stories of black love, patriotism, and courage. She recently published book, “The Soldier of the Black Civil War: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship,” illuminates these forgotten soldiers and their families through a rich archive of rarely seen photographs.
A letter of visit from Lieutenant Peter Vogelsang, who served with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

A letter of visit from Lieutenant Peter Vogelsang, who served with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African History History and Culture

“The erasure comes in many ways,” said Willis, who is a professor and director of the department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

In the case of thousands of African-American Civil War soldiers, he explained, their stories were not “hidden,” but shared in newspapers and letters. Many black soldiers also paid to take photographic portraits depicting them as patriotic free men. They can be seen dressed in military uniforms, proudly posing with the American flag or holding the weapons they fought with.

In his book, Willis presents nearly 100 of the images, dating from the 1840s to 1860s, alongside family correspondence and news articles, which offer an intimate account of the conflict. It also included stories of black medical workers, servants, and cooks, including those in the South, where thousands of enslaved African Americans were brought to war as workers or forced to serve white soldiers.

Willis ’book challenges readers to bear witness to his various experiences.

“I wanted this book to be a kind of memory album: the memory of people who wrote newspaper articles or who wrote newspapers and newspaper entries, but also (those) who shared the visual experience of photography. “, he said. dit.

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

The first cameras first arrived in the United States in 1839, and when the Civil War began in 1861, commercial photography was taking off.

Before going to war, some soldiers made portraits with loved ones as a souvenir in case they did not return. An image from Willis’ book, set in a romantic brass frame, shows a husband and wife sitting side by side. Another shows a soldier with a sword sitting next to his wife, who is dressed in a voluminous robe.

Commercial photographers also set up temporary studios in tents near Army camps, creating what Willis called “spaces for people to reimagine.” Soldiers sometimes received photos to send home to their families, folding them with love letters or notes sent home from the front line.

“We’re not talking about black love in the 19th century,” Willis said. “We talk about survival, which is part of it. But to have the opportunity to see a love story that is a mother and a child, or a patriotic story of a man interested in his citizenship and freedom: this 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 black Union soldiers fought for the same cause as their white counterparts, their squads remained segregated. So were the makeshift war photography studios. “There were certain days that blacks could go to the studios and on Thursdays and Saturdays at noon (they) would say‘ just colored, ’” Willis said. “And then other days they were open to whites.”

Meanwhile, in the South, African Americans had almost no chance of being photographed, and not just because of their status in the Confederacy. The first camera equipment was not readily available in the southern states, Willis writes in his book, and the few photographers there increased their fees “to make up for the high prices of photographic materials and the inflated Confederate dollar.”

“Importance of the moment”

The images discovered include ambrotypes, images made on chemically treated glass plates and types of inks, a much faster innovation that prints images on thin metal sheets submerged 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 photography known as the “business card,” often used as a formal business card, was also increasingly popular during the Civil War. Examples of Willis’ book include portraits of the famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who served in the Union Army and rescued enslaved people through a secret network called the Underground Railroad; Nicholas Biddle, a black man believed to be the first person injured in the conflict after a racist mob threw a brick at him; and Thomas Morris Chester, the first African-American war correspondent for a major newspaper.

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, who rescued enslaved people during the American Civil War.

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, who rescued slaves during the American Civil War. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture

According to Willis ’research, photographers used to charge between 25 cents and $ 2.50 (between the current $ 6 and $ 60), depending on the size of the image. There were additional charges for hand-painted details, such as an American flag.

Considering that Black North soldiers earned less than their white counterparts (only $ 10 a month, with $ 3 more discounted for uniforms, compared to the $ 13 and free clothes the white soldiers enjoyed) take a picture it was relatively expensive. It was therefore a “self-conscious act,” Willis wrote, adding that it “shows that the subjects were aware of the importance of the moment and that they were trying to preserve it.”

For Willis, however, images and stories have to do with both the present and the past. The historian hopes to help younger generations visualize “a broader history” of the role of blacks in the Civil War, sharing experiences of History of black Americans which go beyond the narratives of slavery.

“The absence of these stories dehumanizes young people,” he said, adding, “How can they reflect on the past without creating a future if it’s just a struggle?”

The Black Soldier of the Civil War: A History of Conflict and Citizenship“, published by New York University Press, is now available.

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