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African-American face of Civil War comes alive in collection of profiles

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

While we can easily find any number of books about the white troops on both sides in the Civil War, information on the colored troops, as they were called, is harder to come by. “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album” helps to remedy this deficiency. In it, Ronald S. Coddington presents photos and two-page profiles of 77 African American soldiers and sailors.

While the War Between the States began as a white man’s war with the avowed purpose of keeping the Union together, an increasing number of people, both African American and white, saw it as a war to abolish slavery.

Coloreds, both free and slave, wanted to join the military to free their people but were denied enlistment because of their race. Two of the stereotypes faced were they were not intelligent enough and they would not be dependable in battle situations. For these reasons, when finally admitted to service, they were initially limited to non-combat situations.

Beginning with the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863, they enlisted in the Army and Navy. Eventually more than 200,000 freemen and slaves became soldiers.

Some also became state troops. Perhaps the best known was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which distinguished itself at the battle of Fort Wagner, near Fort Sumter in July 1863. After that, both African Americans and whites held a new respect for colored soldiers. This battle, incidentally, was the subject of the movie “Glory.”

Early on, Kansas established the Independent Battery of the First Colored Light Artillery, at Fort Leavenworth, recruited by William Dominic Matthews. Matthews was born free in Maryland. He moved to Kansas to help the Free State cause.

He recruited and organized African Americans for the Army. He eventually became their Capitan, a very rare rank for an African American at that time. The First Colored Light Artillery saw early action at Island Mound, Mo., in 1862 and went on to other distinguished service.

Others became federal soldiers called United States Colored Troops (USCT). Eventually, 175 regiments of the USCT were created and performed well all over the South.

Coddington, in his profiles, makes these men come to life.

He tells us where they were from, who their parents were, what their childhoods were like, who was free, who was slave, what they did before joining and the kind of service each of the 77 soldiers saw.

He tells us what the survivors did after the war. They joined the Buffalo Soldiers, married and had children, farmed, worked for others at various businesses, created their own businesses, were teachers and ministers, voted, were on juries, were active in public affairs - generally as Republicans - in the days before Jim Crow took their rights away and died - some of old age.

Prior to the 1830s the only way of having a portrait made was to hire an artist to paint it - a long and expensive process that few could afford. By 1860, five kinds of photography existed. Daguerreotypes, collotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and glass negatives from which any number of paper positives could be produced were available. 

These photographic processes put portraiture into the cost range of the ordinary person and photo studios became common. As a result, people could have photographic visiting cards or cartes de visite, made for them with or for their friends.

People collected these cartes along with photos of famous people and put them into albums which were highly treasured. Many of the 77 photos in this book came from such collections.

In his 20-page foreword, Gallman tells us how to analyze the characters of the subjects of the photos by their poses, uniforms and ranks, what they were holding in their hands and other factors.

This is Coddington’s third book in a series on soldiers of the Civil War. The first and second books detailed whites on each side. Unfortunately, although he has created a good index, he does not list any of the individuals profiled in his table of contents, which makes it hard to find a specific person.

These profiles of a group whose contribution is not well known today are interesting. The book is an easy read for anyone who would like to know more about the African American side of the Civil War.

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident.

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