“The Legacy of the Black Civil War Soldier”
Book Review April 6, 2023
By Brenda Greene
The Black Civil War Soldier:
A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship By Deborah Willis
243 pp. New York University Press
The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College recently sponsored a forum, “Unlocking the Stories of Our Ancestors,” in partnership with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Nicke Sewell-Smith, a genealogist with extensive experience in researching the formerly enslaved and their communities throughout the African diaspora, was the featured speaker. Her presentation, “The Trifecta: The Secret to Researching the Formerly Enslaved,” took audience members on a journey that highlighted case studies and revealed the processes and challenges involved in tracing one’s ancestry. The common threads that emerged from this presentation were that tracing one’s ancestry involved reviewing the 1860 census in order to assess whether anyone in the family was a free slave, determining whether a family member served in the Civil War, and researching the records of formerly enslaved in the Freedman’s Bureau. This forum provides an excellent framework for understanding the significance and value of Deborah Willis’s beautifully illustrated and meticulously researched text, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship. The status of Black people during the Civil War and the tracing of their ancestry are inextricably linked.
Through photographs, letters, and stories, Willis provides an in-depth depiction and analysis of the bravery, heroism, and resistance of Black Civil War soldiers from the beginning to the end of the war. Willis turns to correspondence and accounts from White officers and Black soldiers that begin as soon as Lincoln is elected President, as well as letters that Black people sent to editors of newspapers and sympathizers of the abolitionist cause. Her account underscores that at the beginning of the war, hundreds of Black men worked as laborers for each side. As the war escalates, more Black men, both free and enslaved, either escape from the Confederate army or volunteered for various regiments representing different states in the Union. Many leave their families enslaved with the knowledge that their loved ones could continue to be subjected to years of torture.
What immediately strikes the reader is the wide array of individual portraits and group photos of Black men and women with captions documenting their positions and roles as free and formerly enslaved men and women. Many take photos as evidence of their pride and their willingness to fight for their freedom and liberation from enslavement. The extent to which the Confederate soldier fights to defend the southern states is made a stark reality as evidenced by the portraits of white men and their Black servants who are forced to serve alongside their masters.
The letters culled from sources such as the National Archives in Washington, the Freedman’s Bureau, university libraries, and Newkirk’s Letters from Black America (Beacon Press, 2011) depict poignant and vivid renderings of the experiences of the Black soldier. Spottwood Rice, in writing to his children in 1864, states, “My mornings were spent in teaching the men of our regiment to read and write . . . . When enlisted, all but two or three of them were obliged to put a mark to their names as written by the paymaster.” Alexander Heritage Newton, not legally permitted to join the Union army in 1861 because he is a Black man, enlists on his own. He states, “I engaged myself for the great Civil War, the War of Rebellion.” William A Jones writes to the Secretary of War: “Very many of the colored citizens of Ohio and other states have had a great desire to assist the government in putting down this injurious rebellion.” He continues, “We are partly drilled and would wish to enter active service immediately.” Women were also involved in the war. Willis provides a striking portrait of Susie King Taylor, a Black woman who escapes from slavery in 1862 and finds work as a nurse, laundress, teacher, and cook for the First South Carolina Volunteers. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s letter to his mother illustrates the significance of this moment for the Black Civil War soldier. In describing a meeting at a Baptist church on July 4, he tells his mother, “Can you imagine anything more wonderful than a colored abolitionist meeting on a South Carolina plantation? Here were collected all the freed slaves on this island, listening to the most ultra abolition speeches that could be made.”
This exquisitely illustrated volume of photos provides a comprehensive portrait of the Black Civil War soldier. We enter into their interior lives and are reminded of the value of letter writing as a way to document and preserve our history. The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship is a call to document and to be diligent about uncovering our legacy and history. Deborah Willis has given readers an important book that expands the narratives of the Black experience in this country.
Dr. Brenda M. Greene is a Professor of English and Founder and Executive Director of the Center
for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.