The summer 2013 issue of Kansas History magazine includes a review of my book by Kelly Erby, as assistant professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Erby reviewed my volume along with Elizabeth D. Leonard’s Men of Color to Arms! Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, and the Quest for Equality.
Here is the portion of Erby’s article that address African American Faces of the Civil War:
Coddington’s book, as its title suggests, is an “album” composed of the photographs and personal stories of seventy-five African American participants in the Civil War. It is the third in the series written by Coddington, assistant managing editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. (His first two works showcase photographs of white Union and Confederate soldiers, respectively.) Coddington reminds us that the images of black men in uniform are considerably difficult to find because black soldiers usually could not afford to have their pictures taken. The author spent two years discovering portraits all over the country in museums, archives, and private collections. Then, through the creative use of African American newspapers and pension records, Coddington pieced together the biography of each man pictured.
African American Faces of the Civil War, like the photographs it presents, captures the moment when black men in America transitioned from slaves to soldiers and the Civil War became about more than preserving the Union. Unlike any single photograph, however, Coddington’s book depicts this moment from a diverse variety of perspectives. There is the image and story of First Lieutenant William Dominick Matthews of Kansas, who operated a station along the Underground Railroad and was the ‘first man of color” to respond to Kansas senator James Henry Lane’s early proposal to recruit black troops (p. 37). In fact, Matthews not only responded to Lane’s call but also raised his own company of two hundred former slaves. As the regiment awaited formal authorization to join the Union army, some of the men participated in a skirmish at Island Mound in Missouri, becoming the first black troops to engage in combat during the war. Matthews, Coddington finds, echoed Douglass in encouraging his fellow black men to don the Union blue, declaring, “If we fight, we shall be respected. I see that a well-licked man respects the one who thrashes him” (p. 39). Coddington also recovers the story of Private Allen W. King, a Kentucky slave bought by a drafted physician to serve as his substitute in the Union army, a legal option that many Northerners exercised. In addition to soldiers, Coddington’s volume includes servants and laborers who never officially joined the USCT but who served the cause of freedom in other ways. As Coddington relates, all of these men confronted and helped to challenge generations of racism and down about the capabilities of their race.
Note: The above mentions the book contains 75 images, when in fact the total number is 77.