Book Talk at Lakeville Historical Society

13442358_904271953033248_3066261752311497730_nLast evening I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to the membership of the Lakeville Historical Society in Lakeville, Mass. Hosts Rita and Jim Gouveia made me feel instantly welcome, and everyone else was equally friendly and accommodating. In attendance was state representative Keiko Orral and her son, who is studying history. I discussed African American Faces of the Civil War and realized that with my navy book about to be published this may be one of the last of many times that I deliver this talk.

This visit reminded me of the important role played by the Lakeville Historical Society and other historical and genealogical groups across the country. They are on the front lines of history, gathering local relics and stories and preserving them for future generations. They also help me, for when I am researching men and women from the Civil War period I often turn to these organizations for assistance.

I salute Lakeville Historical Society for all that they’ve done in their 45 years of existence and wish them many more.

Talk at Charlottesville CWRT

Work-George-USN-FLight traffic and springtime glory accompanied me on yesterday’s drive to Charlottesville, Va., to present a talk about Civil War photography to the local Civil War Round Table. I found, upon my arrival, that Duncan Campbell has managed all the technical considerations. I soon met president L. Peyton Humphrey and other group members.

My program, The American Soldier in Portrait Photography, 1861-1865, describes the emergence of the carte de visite as the dominant photographic format during the war years and traces its rise from the origins of photography.

The 60-slide presentation includes a group of six cartes to illustrate the individuality of Union and Confederate soldiers, and I swap the six out depending upon the audience (Example: When I presented this program in Augusta, Ga., back in January, the six were all Georgians). This time, one of the portraits I chose for inclusion was U.S. Navy Paymaster George Work, pictured here, who drowned when his ironclad gunboat Tecumseh sunk at the Battle of Mobile Bay. I selected his likeness to add a navy man to the grouping. Turns out one of his descendants, Jean Turrentill, was in the audience! We met afterwards and I’ll be sending her the information that I’ve collected about Work’s life and tragic death.

I also met someone seeking an image of her forefather, and this is a common experience in my presentations. This time, Patricia Ford approached me with a request for a photograph of William Condra Gass of the Union 9th Kentucky Infantry. Gass, from Clay County, Ky., was mortally wounded at the Battle of Stones River on Dec. 31, 1862. A quick search of my subscription databases turned up no portraits. Perhaps you can help! Patricia’s email is craftylady084@gmail.com.

A big thank you to everyone who attended!

 

Civil War Book Discussion at The Ivy

IMG_4365Last night’s event at The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore was unique and wonderful—four authors and historians gathered to talk briefly about their books, followed by a Q and A period with the audience and book signing. I snapped this photo from my seat at the far left of the table.

Next to me sat Michael C.C. Adams, author of Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War. He’s followed by Lawrence M. Denton, an authority on secession crisis, Claudia Floyd, author of Union-Occupied Maryland, and (standing) Ed Berlin, co-owner of The Ivy.

My thanks to Ed, my fellow authors, the audience for making my visit thoroughly enjoyable. Special thanks to Robin Noonan of Hopkins Press, who arranged my appearance.

Washington Post Reports on the Chandler Tintype Donation

chandlerReporter Mike Ruane wrote about the unusual photograph of Andrew Martin Chandler of the 44th Mississippi Infantry and family slave Silas in today’s Post. The image was donated to the Library of Congress by Tom Liljenquist, who learned about the image from my book, African American Faces of the Civil War. The image originally appeared on a 2009 segment of PBS Antiques Roadshow.

The Antiques Roadshow segment was brought to my attention by Richert Salondaka, with whom I became acquainted when my wife, Anne, and I lived in Northern California back in the late 1980s and early 90s. I remember Richert noting that this has got to be in my book! he was right. I tracked down the owner of the photograph, and eventually obtained permission to publish it in African American Faces.

Since then, the photo has appeared on PBS History Detectives, and it continues to be the subject of conversation about slavery and the Confederacy.

Now it is in the Library of Congress—and it belongs to the American people.

An excerpt from Ruane’s story:

Liljenquist bought the photograph from descendants of Andrew Chandler on Aug. 15 and immediately gave it over to the library. “I owned it for about 10 minutes,” he said last week.

He declined to say how much it cost or identify the owner. But five years ago, on the “Antiques Roadshow” television program, the picture was said to be worth $30,000 to $40,000.

In an interview at the library, he said the photo captured “two remarkable young men … (who) look very sincere, maybe a little bit scared, maybe not.”

Read the full story.

Confederate Soldier, Family Slave Now in the Library of Congress

Chandler-Silas-AndrewOne of the most unique Civil War images to surface in recent years is now part of the Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress. According to Tom Liljenquist, the sixth-plate tintype of Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler of the 44th Mississippi Infantry and his family slave, Silas, was delivered to the Library this afternoon.

Liljenquist, accompanied by Chandler Battaile Jr., a descendent of Sgt. Chandler, were met by senior staff and other Library employees to receive the photo about 3 pm today.

The image has been a focus of attention since it was shown on PBS in a 2009 episode of Antiques Roadshow, and again in a 2011 segment of History Detectives. The photo has been put forth by some as proof that Silas was a “Black Confederate” who fought for the South, while others have provided primary research that establishes Silas was no more than a slave who served two of his master’s soldier sons during the war.

The Chandler story has been the subject of numerous books and articles. Battaile has requested that the version included in my 2012 book, African American Faces of the Civil War, be posted with the image on the Library’s site along with the image. I wrote another version that appeared as part of the New York Times Disunion series, “A Slave’s Service in the Confederate Army.”

The image included here was taken from a scan that I made from the original tintype with permission of Chandler Battaile Jr. in 2009.

The Unpublished Diary of John Freeman Shorter, 55th Massachusetts Infantry

photo 1Today I will be visiting the offices of the National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington to deliver the diary pictured here. It was kept by 2nd Lt. John Freeman Shorter in 1865—his last year with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the last of his life. Shorter, who is descended from Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, through her daughter (and Sally Hemings’s sister or half-sister) Betty Brown, died of disease a few weeks after he returned to his home and fiancé in Ohio.

I spent three months working on the diary, with the help of my wife Anne and several friends who were truly generous with their time: Julie Baker, Susan Sukys Evanko and Phyllis M. Sukys. The transcription would not have been completed without their efforts.

photo 2The diary was purchased by Tom Liljenquist earlier this year at a Civil War show. He and I will make the visit to the Museum to formally donate the precious volume today.

Shorter was in a South Carolina hospital recovering from a crippling foot wound he suffered at the Battle of Honey Hill, S.C., on November 30, 1864. His daily entries record visits by comrades, friends and dignitaries including Martin Robison Delany. Shorter describes his recovery, notes wounded and sick soldiers from Sherman’s army arriving at the hospital during the march through the Palmetto State, the surrender by Gen. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the assassination of President Lincoln.

Each entry averages 30-35 words, and starts with a description of the weather before noting details of the day. Shorter does not share his feelings, and I can’t help but wonder if he intended someday to write a memoir of his wartime experience with this diary as a reference to remind him of day-to-day activities.

His last full entry was recorded on Friday, September 22, 1865. It is a typical entry, lacking punctuation and capital letters:

the morning clear and
pleasant quite a
number of the Officers
went to Boston on
business, nothing going
on on the Island
worthy speaking
is written a letter
to my Father
reported that the
paymaster is by
command Paying off the
Regiment in the
morning

This sketch of his life and service appears in the regimental history, Record of the service of the Fifty-fifth regiment of Massachusetts volunteer infantry:

RMC2006_0011John Freeman Shorter was born in Washington, D.C., in the year 1842. His father was for a long time messenger in the United-States Senate. At the time of his enlistment, Lieut. Shorter was working as a mechanic in Delaware, Ohio. With few early advantages, he had acquired by hard study a good English education. In the spring of 1863, hearing of the organization of the Massachusetts regiments, he left home, and joined the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts, then recruiting at Readville. June 24, 1864, he was appointed First Sergeant of Company D. In this position, he proved himself to be an excellent Orderly. Quiet, reserved, modest, he yet held his company in the firmest control. With every soldierly quality, from scrupulous neatness to unflinching bravery, he well merited the reputation of the best non-commissioned officer in the regiment. As such, he was selected for the first promotion from the ranks, and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant by Gov. Andrew, March 24, 1864. The department commander (Brig. -Gen. John P. Hatch) refused him a discharge as Private and muster as Lieutenant, because ” men of African descent could not be commissioned in the United-States Volunteers ! ” While occupying the anomalous position of an officer commissioned and not yet mustered, he was wounded in the foot, at Honey Hill, S.C., Nov. 30, 1864. By this wound he was so severely crippled, that, when the Secretary of War finally decided to recognize colored line-officers, a special order was necessary to authorize his remuster. Notwithstanding this wound, he continued on duty with the regiment after returning from the hospital, and was finally mustered as Second Lieutenant, July 1, 1865. When the Fifty-fifth returned to Massachusetts, he accompanied them, and was discharged with his company, Aug. 29, 1865. He set out directly for Delaware, Ohio, where the young lady resided to whom he was engaged to be married. On the way, he was exposed to the contagion of the small-pox, which his constitution, weakened by wounds, could not resist ; and, soon after arriving at his destination, he died of varioloid.

The officers and men of the regiment will retain him in very pleasant and honorable remembrance. In person he was tall, of muscular build, with head carried a trifle forward, hair light, complexion almost white, and blue eyes, whose lively expression brightened a face otherwise somewhat grave. He was very reticent ; but his few words were crisp, earnest, and to the point. A thorough soldier and a thorough man, he earned and worthily filled the grade to which he was promoted, and amply justified the friendship of the officers of the regiment and the State authorities of Massachusetts, who had urged upon the United-States Government the justice and the policy of the final recognition of the rights of his race, implied in opening to them promotion from the ranks.

Back to Back Book Events

african-american-faces-of-the-civil-war-200DPITwo weeks, two book talks! Now, catching my breath to acknowledge those who organized and attended.

On June 5, I discussed African American Faces of the Civil War to a great group gathered at the Ft. Taber Community Center in New Bedford, Mass. Sponsored by the New Bedford Historical Society, the attendees included Carl Cruz, great-great-grand-nephew of Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. I had met Carl at the National Gallery of Art at last year’s opening of the Shaw Memorial exhibit. The New Bedford Civil War Round Table also sponsored the event, and I’m grateful to the many folks who turned out. I am also indebted to organizer Lee Blake, and John Centeio for his kindness.

On June 13, I spoke to another great group at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., just outside Albany. Organizer Matt George of the Capital District Civil War Round Table. The event was co-sponsored by the Underground Railroad History Project. Special thanks to the three young re-enactors who attended, dressed in their uniforms.

I am grateful for the invitations, and happy to have had the opportunity to tell the stories and share the photos of men of color who participated in our Civil War.

The Civil War Through Different Lenses

african-american-faces-garvin-200DPIA hearty “huzzah” to all the fine folks who organized and those who attended last night’s lecture about African American Faces of the Civil War at the Senior Center in Charlottesville, Va. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit—the hour whizzed by! Delighted to meet Cheryl Ann Regan Kramer, who frequents my Facebook author page, and Al Falcone, a veteran of World War II and maker of beautiful pens. The lecture was organized by the indefatigable Rick Britton, who I met a couple years ago at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Rick and Victoria Britton treated me to dinner afterwards, and had a wonderful time talking about the Civil War, photography, art, and may other subjects. A great day!

Book Talk at Reynolds Community College

ghazala-ronI’m overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the fine team at Reynolds who made last night’s book talk a reality. Heartfelt thanks to Lisa, Ashley, and especially my good friend Ghazala Hashmi (pictured here). The friendship Ghazala and I share extends all the way back to high school, and I’m so happy to reconnect with her after so many years. She and I caught up over dinner at a local Thai restaurant before the talk.

The event took place in the Massey Library auditorium on campus and was well attended. I was delighted to see a number of young faces in the audience, and applaud the teacher who gave one group of high school students extra credit for attending the presentation. I was also impressed with the raffle—four copies of “African American Faces of the Civil War” were given away, and another four copies of the book written by the author who will appear at the next event. In all the talks I’ve participated in, the book raffle is a first.

All of this happened on my birthday, and at the end of the presentation, event coordinator Lisa Bishop stepped up to the podium and asked everyone to wish me a happy birthday on the count of three. That was icing on the cake!

After the event, we all walked out into the lobby of the library for refreshments and a book signing. I met and signed books for a number of attendees, including Wendell, a teacher who planned to use the book in his class.

Great day!

Applause for New Review of African American Faces of the Civil War

african-american-faces-of-the-civil-war-200DPIThe 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.