7th New York Militia, 1861 (Image 1)
In the Civil War there was a correspondence between the rapidly evolving technology of photography, communications, and travel, and the destruction of de jure slavery and the social system that sustained it. And for the first time in history, African Americans were free to chose how they would be portrayed in the media, as opposed to the dominant white society.
In image 1 at right, we see a classic photograph of the white man's idea of the role that the black man would play in the war, as well as the illusion that the war would be a bloodless parade where it would always be the other fellow who was struck with a bullet, or torn to pieces with a shell, died of cholera in a prison, or measles in a mud-choked winter encampment. The men are from the 7th New York Militia, considered a rich man's outfit, and they are wearing gray uniforms, which were typical of militia forces on the North and the South in the early part of the war. The black man in the image has posed in the act of polishing a shoe, and he is literally at the feet of the magnificently attired white solder standing to the right. All of this would change under the pressure of war.
Unidentified African American soldier in Union
uniform and Company B, 103rd Regiment forage
cap with bayonet and scabbard in front of painted
backdrop showing landscape with river (Image 1a)
Image 1a at right portrays a completely different idea of the role of the black man in the war. This soldier is wearing the formal parade order coat of the Union army, as one can see by the metallic epaulets. The long bayonet can be seen on the right. All the leather appears shiny and new, probably this was taken shortly after the soldier enlisted. The photograph has been colorized by hand. It was within an ornamental frame, as can be seen on the image.
One can surmise this image was treasured by the soldier's wife or family. His name unfortunately is lost to history.
Many of these images are from the Library of Congress. Below the fold, I discuss additional images and provide observations on their historical meaning. Thanks for reading.
"Joe", sketch by Edwin Forbes.
In the Civil War, sketch artists followed the armies, and produced very accurate work, which was often used as the basis for wood cuts used to make electrotype images to illustrate widely-read magazines and newspapers such as Harper's Weekly
and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
. At that time photography of moving subjects was not really possible, and reproduction of photographs into newspaper images was not yet possible. The sketch artists were the the main way that the images of the campaign and battles were conveyed to the public. Among the best of these artists were Alfred Waud
(1828-1891) and Edwin Forbes
African-Americans were often subjects for these artists. Image 2 is a sketch by Forbes of known only as "Joe", near Culpepper, Virginia, on September 29, 1863. Joe appears be a teamster or a drover. Culpepper was marched through and fought over on numerous occasions during the Civil War. This is not a caricature, but a sensitive portrayal from life, and I think one may infer that it was approved of by the subject. With research, it might be possible given the date to at least come to a better knowledge of what unit this man belonged to, if not his actual full name.
African-american soldier in zouave
Formal portrait photography
dress (Image 3)
Image 3 shows a soldier wearing the uniform of a zouave
a popular style based on an Arab-influenced French model. This can be seen by the decorative work on the jacket, and the elaborate braid just barely visible on the sleeve cuff. Zouaves were considered, at least by themselves to be elite units, and the fact that the soldier chose to be portrayed in zouave dress shows he must have shared this elan. Again, this image was colorized by hand and held in an ornamental frame. Like the other photographs, it was no doubt treasured by a mother, wife, or sweetheart.
African-american sailor, U.S. Navy
Image 4 portrays a sailor in the Union navy, and this image was taken between 1863 and 1865. Blacks could not become officers in the navy, but their pay, unlike the army, was the equal of whites and they were employed in widespread duties, as opposed to the labor and drudge work which often characterized the black man's service in the army. This page from the Naval History and Heritage command
gives a capsule history of American-American naval service, and gives some interesting photographs of the crews of U.S. naval ships, where African-Americans could form as much as one-fifth of the complement. As with the others, Image 8 is hand-colored. Nothing is known of this man's identity or his service.
4th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, Company E, 1864. (Image 5)
Image 5 shows a detachment of troops forming part of the Washington D.C. garrison in 1864. The top sergeant is at the extreme left of the front rank and is readily distinguishable by the chevrons on his sleeves, his sword, and tassled sword belt. He and one other man, possibly the second sergeant, wear the "shell coat" usual reserved for cavalry or artillerymen. All other soldiers wear the longer fatigue coat. Typical of garrison duty, all uniforms are neat and the entire unit wears the kepi headgear.
Family group, soldier, wife, and daughters (Image 6)
Image 6 also was enclosed in an ornamental frame. The entire family is wearing likely their best clothing. The soldier's uniform appears new. Probably this was taken upon or shortly after his enlistment. The daughters are dressed identically (are they twins?), no doubt with clothing made by the mother herself. Again, the names of this family are lost to history.
On campaign the crisp uniforms of the garrison units gave way to the realities of military life in the open. The armies depended on wagons and teamsters for all overland transport of war materiel, entrenching supplies, food, ammunition, pontoon bridges and everything else to make 100,000 men an army and not a mob. Skilled teamsters were essential to transport the army, and many of them were African-Americans.
Image 7 shows seven of them posed before a wagon and some field huts. Most of the men wear the sky blue Union great coat, but two have forsaken the kepi for a more practical headgear with an all-around brim. The clothing on all the men is battered, but this is probably what the entire army looked like after a few weeks of campaigning. Curiously the man on the far right appears to be wearing a tassled zouave hat, which is incongruent with the others, possibly this represents scavenged apparel.
Union soldiers on the Petersburg front, August 7, 1864
Image 8 is taken in the trenches outside of Petersburg, about two weeks after the Battle of the Crater
on July 20, 1864, in which black regiments suffered heavy casualties. One can see the conditions on the Petersburg front, which approached that of trench warfare in World War One. The shelter immediately behind the soldiers was called a "bomb proof." In the background, one can see soldiers on the firing step. Again, the difficulty of the war can be seen reflected in the obviously weary men.
Fugitive African-Americans fording the Rappahannock.(Image 8a)
Image 8a was part of a stereograph
, a pair of photographs which were used to create an illusion of three-dimensional scene. These were produced by many companies on many subjects. Image 8a shows African Americans who are described as "fugitives". It's possible that they could have been free blacks trying to leave a war zone, but it seems more likely that these people could have been fleeing slavery itself, with all their possessions in the oxcart. In either case, one can only imagine the desperation and fear these people must have felt. On the left, one can see Union cavalry who are either fording or watering in the stream, and in the background can be viewed a railway bridge. Further research using the rail bridge as a clue might well be able to identify the location and perhaps even the date of this particular photograph.
Logo from colors of 25th U.S. Colored Troops(Image 9)
The basic infantry unit in the Civil War was the regiment, which theoretically was composed of about 1,000 men, and was commanded by a colonel. In practice, regiments rarely had more than 600 men, and often many fewer. Regiments were typically raised by the states as volunteers, and then adopted into the federal army.
Each regiment had its own flag, called the "colors", for the state volunteers this was typically a version of the state flag with the regiment's name on it, and sometimes other embellishments.
Most of the African-American infantry units were raised directly by the national government rather than the states, and these became known as the "United States Colored Troops" and each regiment had its own colors, which were not based on any state flag
Image 9 shows the legend "Strike for God and Liberty, with Freedom (or Columbia) handing a rifle with fixed bayonet to a black man, clearly intended to represent a liberated slave, who's feet are bare but whose shackles are broken, with the logo surrounded by laurel leaves symbolizing victory. This sort of symbolism was popular among people of all races in the 1860s, although to our eyes it seems downright corny. On the other hand, armies in the civil war did not award the jingling array of medals that we now choose to festoon upon our senior generals.
Other battle flag mottos were:
* Let soldiers in war, Be citizens in Peace
* Rather die freemen than live to be slaves
* We will prove ourselves men, and
* One cause, one country.
This chromolithograph, printed by Kurz and Allison in 1888, depicts the Battle of Nashville, which occurred in mid-December, 1864, and was a catastrophe for the south. Like most Kurz and Allison Civil War battle scene lithographs, this depicts a stylized and composite scene, with Union cavalry (all white, probably accurate, as only a few African-American cavalry units were formed during the war) charging in at the lower left, Confederate soldiers retreating and surrendering at the right, and across the top, can be seen a depiction of the 14th, 16th, and 44th regiments of the United States Colored Troops attacking a line of artillery and infantry across a ridgeline, and, as was historically the case, driving away the defenders.
Curiously the flag is shown being carried by the white commander of these troops. While it is true that the commissioned officers of the USCT were white (there were a few exceptions) it would have been unusual for an officer to be carrying the colors, as this was generally done by an enlisted man. It could be quite dangerous to carry the flag (for example, in one famous incident, on the first day of Gettysburg, of the 24th Michigan, a white regiment, five of nine color bearers were killed, and the others, including the colonel who had picked up the flag from the ground, all wounded). So officers, while not cowards, for the good of their units, generally did not pick up the colors, and it was not expected by their men that they would do so.
So unless some additional research shows that this was one of the exceptions, lithograph seems to be a compromise, wanting to show a successful attack by African Americans, but keeping the flag bearer as a white man.
This particular lithograph has faded with age, but originally was quite vivid, which was a strong selling point in those days. Kurz and Allison was not an African-American firm, but given that 180,000 African-Americans served in the Union forces, it was an obvious market which the firm served by this and other lithographs showing African-American troops in a highly favorable light.
By the late 1880s, the African-Americans who had fought in the civil war were growing old, and they had children and grandchildren. This lithograph captures I think how the African-American community thought of their critical role in winning the Civil War and how they wanted it to be passed on in history.