The Indiana Magazine of History published a review of African American Faces of the Civil War by Deborah Willis in its current issue (December 2013, pages 403-404). It is one of the most thoughtful and cogent reviews of the book. I am particularly pleased to read Willis’s observation, “Coddington makes a compelling argument for the reader to rethink the place of photography in telling history.”
THE FULL REVIEW:
African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album
By Ronald S. Coddington
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 338. Illustrations, notes, references, index. $29.95.)
In images and text, Ronald Coddington sets out to uncover a compelling history of the black man’s role in his own emancipation. African American Faces of the Civil War comes amidst an onslaught of books and exhibitions commemorating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and focusing on the officers, laborers, and soldiers—known and unknown, black and white—who served in the Civil War. Until recently, scholars have written little about the contributions of African American men to the war effort. This book stands as one of the first photographic albums connecting portraits of black soldiers to ideas of democracy and patriotism that were current at the time. The book engages the reader with ideas about citizenship and self-representation as they were fashioned through the camera lens with uniformed soldiers, standing alone or in pairs, holding flags, banners, or arms, and posed in front of illustrated battlegrounds.
Next to the portraits Coddington provides short biographies of the men who fought and labored in the war. The narrative explores their sense of strength, commitment, and courage, before, during, and after the war. Hardworking, hypermasculine, and well-intentioned fighters, some survived the war to lead exceptional lives; many—even with the challenges of late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century segregation—managed to raise families and build communities.
As Coddington writes, even the opportunity to fight was initially denied them. Both the Union and the Confederate armies implicitly and explicitly excluded African American men from their first call-up in 1861. Many of the men who eventually served did so by protesting to the government. As the war became more strenuous and manpower more scarce, however, African Americans were eagerly recruited to fight. Some joined local regiments as they were formed; others traveled great distances to enlist with a particular regiment. The 54th Massachusetts, for instance, drew its ranks from Canada, Ohio, Indiana, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
Coddington’s depiction of the “brave, aggressive, fearless, uncompromising” (p. 152) Milton Holland of the Virginia-based 5th U.S. Colored Infantry, makes clear the commitment that black soldiers had to achieving full citizenship. In his portrayal of Holland and others like him, Coddington contributes to the recent critical writings on the self-emancipation of Civil War soldiers. Yet he does not shy away from controversial relationships between slave masters and enslaved soldiers. An entry entitled “He Aided His Wounded Master” chronicles the lives of Silas Chandler and his owner, Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler, Company F, 44th Mississippi Infantry. A tintype portrait shows Silas seated on a lower chair as Andrew sits a head taller on a high chair. While the posing clearly indicates Silas’s status as inferior, both appear well armed for battle. This portrait and Coddington’s informative yet complex text suggest a sympathetic read of this master-servant relationship.
In developing parallels between the control of one’s image in narratives and the use of the photograph as biography, Coddington makes a compelling argument for the reader to rethink the place of photography in telling history. His use of photographs as visual text allows the reader to reimagine history through the photographer’s lens. This book maps new methodologies for researching and writing about photographs and plumbs the hidden history of the Civil war narrative.
Deborah Willis is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts, and a faculty member in Africana Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, New York University.