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.

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.

The State of the Navy Is Strong!

Last summer, I announced on Facebook that my next book in the Faces series will focus on the fourth great narrative of the Civil War—the stories of sailors who served in the Union and Confederate navies.

I’m pleased to report that the state of the navy is strong! Over the last six months, I’ve located 27 original, wartime photographs of navy men, and have received permission to include them in the forthcoming book. Research is underway for the majority of the men, and two profiles are finished.

dana-williamOne of the images acquired for the book is included here. Acting Ensign William S. Dana (standing) is pictured with Richard S. Dana. The two are likely brothers or cousins. The back of the photograph is dated October 1863, which coincides with Ensign Dana’s graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. Less than a year later, Dana numbered among a small group of officers who received a formal thanks from Admiral David Farragut for the destruction of the blockade runner Ivanhoe, which was chased aground by federal warships near Fort Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay. On July 6, 1864, Dana commanded one of several small boats that attacked the Ivanhoe in a daring nighttime raid. Dana and his comrades managed to set the stranded boat afire while hundreds of Union sailors and soldiers observed the action. “The entire conduct of the expedition was marked by a promptness and energy which shows what may be expected of such officers and men on similar occasions,” announced Farragut with evident pride.

Dana went on to a distinguished career in the navy.

This is one of the 77 soldier stories and images that will ultimately appear in the book.

I am delighted with the progress to date, and will continue to post updates at six-month intervals. The manuscript is scheduled to be delivered to my publisher, The Johns Hopkins University Press, in December 2015.

Civil War Photography Book Fair at the National Archives

archives-programYesterday morning in Washington, D.C., I was walking down Constitution Avenue near the corner of 7th Street when the small blue sign labeled “Today’s Program” caught my attention. It pointed the way to “Free Lectures with Book Signing,” and listed the day’s schedule. As the first of four speakers of the daylong event promoted elsewhere as the “Civil War Photography Book Fair” and the “Civil War Book Fair,” I was relieved to know that I had found the proper entrance with a half hour to spare before my presentation.

I’m a regular at the National Archives, but not at this entrance. I normally use the research door, which is on another side of the building.

I made my way inside the Archives, marched downstairs to the William G. McGowan Theater, and was escorted to the Green Room. There I had the distinct pleasure to meet Hari Jones, the Assistant Director and Curator of the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum in Washington, D.C.

archives-promo-cardHari (pronounced Harry) was tasked with introducing all of the speakers.

According to his biography, Hari is one of America’s foremost authorities on the role of African Americans during the war. I came away from our ten-minute conversation deeply impressed with his knowledge about and passion for men of color who participated in the war.

In the Green Room I also met Susan Clifton, the producer of public programs. She provided all the necessary pre-game details, which included an introduction to the theater podium. Minutes before the program began, archivist Claire Prechtel-Kluskens arrived on the scene. She would welcome the audience and introduce Hari.
coddington-archives01The event began promptly at 11 a.m. and was broadcast live on UStream. Within a few minutes, I walked up to the podium and launched into my discussion of African American Faces of the Civil War. Following my remarks, which are now archived on UStream, I exited the theater to sign books. Among those who purchased copies was a young man who worked for Ancestry and Fold3. He helped digitize U.S. Colored Troops records, and is currently working on records for veterans of the War of 1812.

On my way out, I bumped into Robert Wilson, the next speaker in the lineup. He is the author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, which was released last August. Wilson and I had much in common due to our mutual interest on photography of the era, and our journalism connections at USA TODAY and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

All in all, it was a wonderful visit. I’m thankful to the staff of the Archives for their work to organize the program, and to Robin Noonan of Hopkins Press, publicist extraordinaire.

 

“African American Faces” Talk at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum

wisconsin-meI felt right at home in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum from the moment I entered the building yesterday afternoon. Located across from the stately Capitol building in Madison, the museum delivers on its tagline, “Connecting the past to the present, one story at a time.” Established by Civil War veterans in 1901, the museum is ably led today by Director Michael Telzrow (pictured, right) and Curator of Research & Public Programs Kevin Hampton (left).

Mike and Kevin generously shared their time and expertise as they took me on a behind the scenes tour of the museum, the highlight of which was a viewing of Wisconsin Civil War soldier images. In recent years they’ve built an impressive collection of cartes de visite, tintypes and ambrotypes. The team at the museum are on the front lines of preserving these wonderful images, and they deserve tip of the forage cap for their ongoing efforts.

Mike himself collected photos for a number of years, and we had fun referencing dealers we know and trading stories about unusual finds we’ve made along the way.

Another highlight was a viewing of original flags from Wisconsin regiments. These celebrated relics, torn and damaged from being carried into action on battlefields and faded from the elements, still remain powerful icons of the sacrifice of citizen soldiers from Madison and elsewhere in Wisconsin who stood up to fight for freedom and Union. The emotion attached to these banners continues to resonate, and I was instantly moved by their power.

We then toured the museum’s Civil War exhibit, which includes a Confederate cannon captured at Shiloh and almost immediately shipped to Wisconsin as a war trophy, and other objects with stories that are equally fascinating.

Mike, Kevin and I then had dinner, followed by my presentation about African American Faces of the Civil War at the museum. I was impressed with the quantity and quality of questions from the audience.

wisconsin-booksAfterwards, I signed books in the lobby gift shop. Here I met Kate Wheat of the 1st Brigade Band. Kate has purchased “Huzzah” refrigerator magnets from my wife, Anne. Kate kindly gave us her CD, “Frock Coats & Hoopskirts: Music for a Military Ball.” It’s currently playing in the background as I write this post.

I also met a young man named Matthew, who purchased a copy of the book. He is fascinated with the Civil War, especially the Battle of Gettysburg and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He reminded me of myself as a boy, and I was particularly pleased that a copy of African American Faces is in his possession. I hope it deepens his appreciation and understanding of this pivotal moment in our nation’s history.

I’m deeply appreciative for the opportunity, and thankful to Mike, Kevin, Jen, and the rest of the staff for making my Wisconsin visit memorable! I left the museum deeply impressed, and highly recommend a visit. I look forward to working with Mike and Kevin as they continue to seek out Wisconsin Civil War images.

Eyes out for the five-button coat!

Appearance at the Slouching Salon

slouching-salonLast night I gave a talk about African American Faces of the Civil War before a small discussion club at a private home in Arlington, Va. The group, known as the “Slouching Salon,” has been in existence for years. They normally convene to discuss a specific topic, but occasionally entertain speakers. I found them to be tight-knit group who were eager to learn and had plenty of good questions. An excellent event, and many thanks to host Bob Roll for inviting me to participate. Speaking in a small private space instead of an auditorium was a more intimate experience, and reminded me of the popular House Concert movement currently in fashion. I’d like to do more events like this!

Here I am kicked back in the living room of Bob Roll’s residence, at the very beginning of the presentation.

Book Talk at the Historical Society of Kent County

photo 1Located in the heart of Chestertown, Md., the Historical Society of Kent County has one of the best locations of any I’ve visited. It was an excellent venue to present a talk about African American Faces of the Civil War. Yesterday I spoke to members of the society and guests as the streets outside were crowded with locals participating in First Friday events.

I enjoyed my visit, thanks in large part to Steve Frohock, who coordinated the event. Steve was responsible for having all three of my books available for purchase (thanks to all who did!) and a wonderful display in the front window of the Bordley History Center (pictured top and bottom).

photo 3Steve (pictured, right) told me that the society had worked with The Johns Hopkins University Press on a number of book-related events.

About 400 African American men from Kent County served in the Union army, and the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Hall they built in 1908 still stands. But the area is best known to historians and others, according to Steve, for the War of 1812. On August 30, 1814, the Kent County militia battled the British at Caulk’s Field. The site is in pristine condition today, and plans are underway for the bicentennial celebration next year.

photo 2Thanks to everyone who came out yesterday afternoon! On a side note for those of you familiar with the Bay Bridge and Friday beach traffic, it was minimal!