“The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship” by Deborah Willis; NYU Press (256 pages, $35)


It wasn’t just a war for freedom. It was a war for the future.

Black soldiers during the Civil War weren’t just fighting for themselves. They were fighting for their children and all who came after. They were fighting for tomorrow.

“The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship,” by Deborah Willis, delivers much more than the formal, carefully posed photographs of men in uniforms and their heartfelt letters home and to the world.

The book reminds us that even the ultimate fight for freedom — when Blacks and some whites were on the same side — equality even then was barely a notion.

Although Blacks had served in the Navy since 1792, they were prohibited from the Army. Bigots doubted Blacks’ bravery or feared their armed rebellion. Activists like Frederick Douglass knew that when Blacks were allowed onto the battlefield, it would be a giant leap forward for civil rights.

“Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, US,” Douglass wrote. “Let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth, or under the earth, that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

When the Civil War began, though, Blacks were still banned from the Army, yet many joined volunteer regiments where they could.

On April 18, 1861, six days after the war began, five volunteer militias from Pennsylvania marched through Baltimore to defend the Capitol in Washington., D.C. An angry group of Confederate sympathizers met them. The mob grew outraged when they saw a Black man in uniform, Nick Biddle.

“Violence erupted,” wrote historian John David Hoptak. “They were pelted with stones, bricks, bottles and whatever else the vehement mob could find; some were even clubbed and knocked down by a few well-landed punches.”

Biddle was already 65 and had served in the militia since 1840. At the start of the war, he was a captain’s orderly. Yelling racial slurs, someone threw a brick at Biddle’s face. His white comrades helped the injured man to his feet. The militia continued its march and finally managed to board a train to D.C.

This marked the first bloodshed in the Civil War, and it was a Black man’s.

By 1862, President Lincoln had quietly authorized the Union Army to form Black regiments. Douglass even wrote an early recruiting poster. “Men of Color To Arms! To Arms!” it began. “Fail Now, & Our Race Is Doomed.”

Once in uniform, Blacks urged others to enlist. “Spring forth to the call and show to the world that you are men,” soldier Milton M. Holland urged in a letter to an Ohio paper. “There is a brighter day coming for the colored man.”

Of course, once they enlisted, some realized that day had not yet come. One anonymous Black soldier with the 55th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry wrote the New York Weekly Anglo-African that, although promised $13 a month, Black soldiers were paid only $7.

“How the authorities expect our families to live without the means to buy bread, pay house rent, and meet the other incidental expenses of living in these terrible times, we know not,” he wrote. “Are our parents, wives, children and sisters to suffer, while we, their natural protectors, are fighting the battles of the nation? We leave the government and Congress to answer.”

Still, Blacks were eager to fight for freedom. Some had even escaped slavery to do so. Now, though, they endured twin tortures. During battle, Black soldiers confronted crashing cannonballs. After, they worried about the families they had left behind. Fears of their fate, and thoughts of revenge, lingered.

“I want you to understand that where ever you and I meets we are enmays,” a furious Spottswood Rice wrote the slaveholder who still held his two daughters. Although the Union soldier was currently in the hospital, “My children is my own and I expect to get them,” he warned. “And I will have a power and authority to bear them away and execute vengences on them that holds my child.”

Some of the letters Willis collects were written on behalf of the soldiers. Often, they were from worried mothers. “Mr Abraham Lincon I wont to knw sir if you please wether I can have my son relest from the arme he is all the subport I have now his father is Dead,” wrote Jane Welcome of Carlisles, Pa. “I am old and my head is blossoming for the grave and if you dou I hope the lord will bless you.”

An official at the Bureau of Colored Troops wrote back, denying her request.

Although they had to fight just to serve, more than 200,000 Black men defended the Union on land and at sea by the end of the Civil War. Roughly 40,000 Black men gave the ultimate sacrifice, and 25 Black soldiers and sailors were eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. Women also served as nurses, cooks, and seamstresses. Harriet Tubman worked as a spy.

Naturally, Douglass was right: American Blacks’ service in the Civil War would reflect well on them. Whether they were born free or broke their own chains, Black soldiers proved they would fight as bravely and capably as their white brothers.

Some served under fire in other ways, such as Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta. When war broke out, he offered his as a physician for six years, writing to Lincoln, “I can be of use to my race.” Augusta became the U.S. Army’s first Black physician. There were groundbreaking Black journalists, too, like Thomas Morris Chester, who covered the conflict for the Philadelphia Press, the first Black war correspondent for a major daily.

A Black soldier had been the first to shed blood for the Union; Black soldiers would now be present for the Confederacy’s demise. On April 3, 1865, the Twenty-Fifth Corps, consisting of units from the Army’s US Colored Troops, helped take Richmond, the rebel capital. They then went on to Appomattox, where General Lee surrendered.

The Confederacy was over at last.

“The doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe as they termed him,” Garland H. White wrote of visiting the newly vanquished Richmond. White was “a self-emancipated man who became a Methodist minister and chaplain of his Indiana regiment.”

It was important to him, he said, that Black people remembered this: They had not waited for someone else to save them.

“Let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of the Richmond,” Garland wrote of the units from North Carolina and Virginia who served along the James River. “I was with them, and am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world. Yes, we will follow this race of men in search of liberty.”

The Civil War was over.

But the war for civil rights was just beginning.

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