Black Soldiers and the Civil War

The storming of Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation enabled African American men to enlist in the Union army in 1863, Alexander Thomas Augusta stood before the president of the Army Medical Board. As an African American man who left the United States due to racial discrimination and then earned a medical degree in Canada, Augusta returned to his home country and resolved to assist freedpeople and Black soldiers. He passed the Union military’s medical exam, enlisted as the nation’s then-highest ranking Black officer, and served his country. Reproductions of Dr. Augusta’s portrait, as well as his letter to President Abraham Lincoln that specified his determination to support the Union cause and set into motion his military service, are just a few of the several hundred primary documents reproduced in Deborah Willis’s recently published book, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship.

The dozens of photographs between its covers testify to a rich visual record of African Americans’ participation in the Civil War. Part of her motivation to publish the images and stories of these men and their supporters, Willis writes, is due to other scholars not having shared them in previously published works. Some of the images of uniformed African American service members will be familiar to readers while many others have rarely, if ever, been published.1 The book is one of several recent publications that highlights the visual culture of the Civil War and a growing number of books that specifically urge readers to learn how African Americans and women helped determine the war’s trajectory.2

Drawn from archives and private collections across the country, the portraits in Willis’s book convey the pride and dedication of African American soldiers in the face of numerous obstacles. What’s more, the images provide faces and names while Willis delivers provocative background context and tells their personal stories as a means of keeping their memories alive. Themes of freedom, resilience, and the quest for full citizenship connect the book’s chapters, which move chronologically in line with the war’s progression. Throughout, we see how the debates concerning freedom and citizenship – in image and text – among and about African Americans changed as well.

While readers’ eyes will be drawn to the glossy pages of beautifully reproduced images, the diary entries, letters, and legal testimony within the book provide another layer of memories that illuminates the dangers and heartache behind the proud photographs. What comes into focus is the soldiers’ multifaceted personalities. We are given clear insight into their motivations for fighting, the difficulties they faced, and the obstacles they encountered when seeking fair and equal treatment on and off the battlefield. Letters record the bitter frustration that African Americans experienced when the Union army paid them less than their white counterparts, causing their families to suffer. Others recorded the terrors of war and the unease of waiting for battle. Some recorded the exuberance of freedom when they marched into Richmond and helped emancipate its enslaved population. Many expressed deep familial responsibilities and concern for their wives and children. These characteristics are not readily discerned in most of the military portraits throughout the book, thus emphasizing Willis’s intent to portray these men as complex individuals whose military service was but one part of their identities. 

As Willis makes clear, soldiers’ experiences cannot be removed from their relationships with their friends, loved ones, fellow servicemen, and even adversaries. Willis includes a wide variety of images and documents detailing the lives of women and men, white and Black, whose lives were deeply entwined with Black soldiers. Images of, and documents written by, Susie King Taylor and Charlotte L. Forten preserve some of the memories of African American women who nursed and taught soldiers and self-emancipated refugees. Formerly enslaved African American cook and washerwoman, Cathay Williams, disguised herself as a man and fought as an enlisted Union soldier.

Willis highlights the work of these, and many other, women and shows how they were vital to the Union war aims and the broader demands for Black freedom and citizenship. Selected letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, detailed the reasons for which Black soldiers should fight alongside white soldiers and Bostonians’ changing reception of Black soldiers incorporates important perspectives on African Americans’ experiences of war. Letters and legal testimony describe the horrific violence that some Black women suffered because their husbands enlisted in the Union army. Willis’s approach ensures that the African American men whose memories are preserved in this book are always embedded in the families and communities that shaped them.

Yet even during the Civil War, the faithful representation and memory of African American soldiers’ wartime experience were under attack. Willis details the concerted efforts of several Black and white soldiers and editors to correct the public record of African Americans’ military service. Battles erupted over claims of African Americans’ alleged military conduct in newspapers and personal correspondence throughout the country. Willis draws on rich African American newspaper archives and letters to highlight how printed materials, like visual ones, became their own battlegrounds of memory. The Union loss at the Battle of the Crater sparked one such rebuke from a Black soldier whose detailed firsthand testimony refuted printed claims that Black soldiers were the cause of Union defeat. African Americans and their allies knew that accurately representing these soldiers’ actions was deeply connected to larger debates over African American citizenship. In doing so, Black soldiers and cultural producers took a decided approach to reimagine for the public their experience of war without the racial prejudice intended to undercut them.

The documents they left behind, including the several hundred featured in Willis’s The Black Civil War Soldier, memorialize their sacrifices, fear, and love. Even if they might not have survived wartime injuries and disease, these documents live on to preserve their quest for more fully realized freedoms and citizenship. The lengths to which African American soldiers and their supporters sought to control the memories of their wartime experiences demonstrates how shaping and preserving public memory is a constant battle. This book adds to that struggle. The voices and memories of those featured in its pages live on in their photographs and letters.

  1. See Ronald S. Coddington, African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
  2. Matthew Fox-Amato, Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Aston Gonzalez, Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Stephanie McCurry, Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019); Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2017).
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Aston Gonzalez

Aston Gonzalez is an Associate Professor of History at Salisbury University and the author of Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century.

Comments on “Black Soldiers and the Civil War

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    This is a great article about black soldiers
    in the Civil War. So much has been overlooked.

  • Avatar

    Excellent article and excellent review of a most-needed topic. Ordering my copy now. Thank you!

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