Unearthing rare images and unique stories of African American Civil War soldiers

Guest post by Ronald S. Coddington

After my second book, Faces of the Confederacy, debuted in 2008, colleagues and friends asked me about my next project. I answered that African American soldiers would be the focus of my next volume.

My reply was met with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Two bits of conventional wisdom surfaced in their comments. First, that finding enough wartime photographs of identified soldiers would prove impossible. Second, that the stories of African American soldiers are uninteresting because so few fought in battles.

I can appreciate both points. The individual black experience in the Civil War has been underappreciated. Most Americans today know it through Glorythe movie about the famed Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry and its courageous yet tragic assault on Fort Wagner, or from scant chapters in history books illustrated with the same few photographs of unnamed black men in blue uniforms. Despite the groundbreaking service of roughly 200,000 African Americans in the Union army and navy during the war, the contributions of a far smaller group of Buffalo Soldiers in post-war America enjoy far greater recognition.

Despite the skepticism of my peers, I remained convinced that a wealth of visual and textual material was waiting to be discovered.

I started with photographs. Online searches resulted in a handful of images in university collections, historical societies, and museums. Contact with private collectors and Civil War dealers turned up a few promising leads.

Next, I scouted out primary sources of information. One of the first places I looked was William F. Fox’s landmark 1889 treatise Regimental Losses in the American Civil War. The chapter dedicated to “colored troops” is a condensed history of the origins of 166 African American regiments and a list of more than 35 battles in which they participated.

Through Regimental Losses and other texts, I realized that my perceptions of the Civil War had been shaped from a white point of view: The Northern populace initially went to war to preserve the Union, and after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the central aim of the war shifted to the abolition of slavery.

Considered from the African American perspective, the war had been about freedom from the beginning. The brave black men who fought for equality were central to the greatest chapter in American history.

The trek to unearth images

My longtime passion for vernacular photography of the Civil War era caused me to instinctively turn to the vibrant community of collectors and dealers at relic shows along the East coast and as far west as Ohio. Through their generosity, I secured about a third of the images featured in the book.

Three images came from families. I found Dave Brown and Dr. Donald Cunnigen online. Both men possessed much knowledge of their ancestors, Samuel Truehart and Emanuel Cunnigen, and generously supplied their research. I met Chandler Battaile for lunch at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. We chatted for more than two hours about his family and the tintype of his great-grandfather, Andrew Chandler, who posed with Silas, the family slave who accompanied him to war. At the end of our meeting, he produced the original image, which had recently appeared on an episode of PBS Antiques Roadshow, and charged me with its safekeeping until I could make a high-resolution digital scan and return it to him. He also introduced me to Bobbie Chandler, the great-grandson of Silas.

The remainder came in groups of ones and twos, tucked away in archives across the country. I also found several larger caches, including a collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Over a two-year period I secured permission to reproduce 95 identified images. I selected 77 for inclusion in the book, the same number featured in my other volumes.

The search for transformative stories of the war

My research effort began online by submitting queries to Ancestry.com and the military research forum at AfriGeneas.com. I searched digital books and finding aids of collections owned by public and private institutions, and subscribed to several databases of military service files, genealogical records, and newspapers.

Much to my delight, I discovered a digital collection of African American newspapers on Accessible Archives. These provided a wealth of detail on military, political, economic, and social issues. I found other rare interviews and eyewitness battle accounts on the newspaper archive NewsinHistory.com.

I gathered additional information during trips to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and visits to other archives, libraries, and museums. My local interlibrary loan program was indispensable. I also communicated with descendants by email and telephone.

The entire project, from concept to publication, required four years—the same length of time it took to fight the Civil War.

Ronald S. Coddington is assistant managing editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. His work has appeared in USA Todaythe Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the San Jose Mercury News. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times' Disunion series and writes a monthly column for Civil War News. He is the author of Faces of the Confederacy, Faces of the Civil War, and, most recently, African American Faces of the Civil War. All are published by the JHU Press.


Also try Susie King Taylor. Her memoirs Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers are online for free thanks to Google Books. Also you may look at these documents which have been transcribed and uploaded: http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/fafpg.htm

The are perspectives of the Civil War from African American women. Pension applications filed by widows of deceased veterans can provide details of their Civil War experience, as they typically filed affidavits and sometimes were interviewed by pension examiners. Period newspapers are another source. For example, in the August 8, 1862, edition of The Liberator, I found an interview with Hannah Smalls, wife of Robert Smalls. His story of piloting the Confederate ship Planter out of Charleston Harbor and into Union hands is well known. The reporter who interviewed Hannah included details of episode (she was on the ship with Robert) that added to the drama of the story. And, in this case, revealed Hannah's commitment to escape slavery with her husband (and children) at any cost.

I agree, the pictures are awesome! I would love to get the perspective of the Civil War from an African American woman. That would be an interesting outlook.

Great pictures!

Im interested in collections of african american civil war soldiers more info....

I spent two years researching identified African American soldier photographs, and found most images in small groups of one to five. The single largest collection of identified photographs that I located are in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University: http://discover.odai.yale.edu/ydc/Record/3548096 Unidentified photographs of African Americans are available in the collections of the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivitie... For more information about the role of African American soldiers, you might visit the Civil War Trust: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/usct/usct-united-states-colore...