A new book sheds light on the experience of black Civil War soldier through never-seen-before photographs from the 19th century.
The American Civil War, 1861-1865, was the first major conflict to be captured through photography as the new technology of the day.
After tensions between the North and the South seethed for decades over slavery, the bloody and brutal conflict began in 1861: The Confederacy seceded from the Union and attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
Until 1865, the war raged – leaving loss, devastation and destruction in its wake. Deborah Willis, a New York University professor that chairs its Department of Photography & Imaging, uses the medium to tell the story of African Americans during the conflict in her new book, The Black Civil War Solider.
Much of the scholarship has focused on President Abraham Lincoln and the white soldiers on both sides of the war.
Since the founding of the United States, slavery was an issue, which only became exacerbated as the country expanded West and new territories were added. The question of whether slavery should be allowed was fought in Congress and by 1854, the legislative body passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which ‘opened all new territories to slavery,’ according to History.com.
Abolitionists – those who fought to end slavery – started to turn to violent tactics, including John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
Abraham Lincoln was elected president and in his 1861 inaugural address stated: ‘In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you…. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.’
When the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, the 16th president called on the states for volunteers and the Civil War began. States decided to stay with the Union or secede with the South, which formed its own government with Jefferson Davis as its president.
Black soldiers were fighting ‘even though they were prohibited from joining until July 1862, fifteen months into the war,’ according to the African American Civil War Museum’s website. After Congress passed the Militia Act of 1862, free black men joined volunteer regiments in Illinois and New York.
‘On September 27, 1862, the first regiment to become a United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment was officially brought into the Union army.
‘All the captains and lieutenants in this Louisiana regiment were men of African descent,’ according to the museum’s website.
‘Before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, two more African descent regiments from Kansas and South Carolina would demonstrate their prowess in combat.’
In the third year of the war on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated ‘that all persons held as slaves’ ‘are, and henceforward shall be free.’ The War Department recruited African American soldiers and the first regiment formed was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.
The Bureau of Colored Troops opened in May that year to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers, as well as Native Americans and Asian Americans.
Images of President Abraham Lincoln, as well as Union and Confederate soldiers are well-known, however images of African-Americans from that time are rare.
By the end of the Civil War, 10 per cent of the Union Army were made up of black soldiers, or roughly 179,000 men.
Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well.
Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause.
Black women were not formally allowed to join the army, but they served as nurses, spies, and scouts.
Although being permitted to join the army, black soldiers still faced racial discrimination. Segregated units were formed with black enlisted men and were often commanded by white officers.
White soldiers were also paid better for their efforts. Black soldiers were initially paid $10 per month from which $3 was automatically deducted for clothing, resulting in a net pay of $7.
In contrast, white soldiers received $13 per month from which no clothing allowance was drawn.
Discrimination in the army also resulted in large numbers of African-American soldiers being assigned to perform non-combat, support duties as cooks, laborers, and teamsters.
Black troops faced greater peril than white troops when captured by the Confederate Army, with the Confederate Congress threatening to punish severely officers of black troops and to enslave black soldiers.
This prompted President Lincoln to issue General Order 233, which threatened reprisal on Confederate prisoners of war (POWs) for any mistreatment of black soldiers.
The first engagement by African-American soldiers against Confederate forces during the Civil War was at the Battle of Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri on October 28–29, 1862.
African Americans, mostly escaped slaves, had been recruited into the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. They accompanied white troops to Missouri to break up Confederate guerrilla activities based at Hog Island near Butler, Missouri. Although outnumbered, the African-American soldiers fought valiantly, and the Union forces won the engagement.
In 2012 the state established the Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site to preserve this area; the eight Union men killed were buried near the battleground.
USCT regiments fought in all theaters of the war, but mainly served as garrison troops in rear areas. The most famous USCT action took place at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg. Regiments of USCT suffered heavy casualties attempting to break through Confederate lines. Other notable engagements include Fort Wagner, one of their first major tests, and the Battle of Nashville.
USCT soldiers were among the first Union forces to enter Richmond, Virginia, after its fall in April 1865. The 41st USCT regiment was among those present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox.
Following the war, USCT regiments served among the occupation troops in former Confederate states.
Book author Deborah Willis, who is a professor of photography at New York University, sourced remarkable pictures such as that of Christian Fleetwood who was a non-commissioned officer in the United States army and received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in a Battle of Chaffin’s Farm during the Civil War.
However, it isn’t just soldiers that the book celebrates.
A portrait of William P. Powell Jr., who was one of the first African American to tend to the wounded as a surgeon.
He was one of 13 black surgeons to serve in Civil War for the Union Army.
There’s also Thomas Morris Chester, the first African American war corresponded for a major daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Press.
There’s also a picture of the iconic Harriet Tubman, the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War.
Born into slavery herself, she guided a raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people.
- The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship by Deborah Willis is out now, published by NYU Press.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Sophie Tanno