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.

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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.

 

Afternoon Book Signing at the Smithsonian

“I’m Margaret!” are the first words I remember spoken by Margaret Fisher after she appeared at the table where I was signing my books yesterday afternoon. Margaret is a longtime and supportive fan of this page, and regularly comments on posts here. I was absolutely delighted to meet her in person, and have the opportunity to learn more about her Civil War connections.

Margaret is one of many individuals who stopped by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History yesterday afternoon. Anne and I were set up at a table on the main floor of the museum next to the mall exit—so we were the last stop for many visitors as they lingered at the gift shop or prepared to leave after a day of exploring the exhibits.

1-ron-coddington-signs-john-smithsonianAmong those I met was John (he’s pictured here), who had a particular interest in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry. We had a great chat. A big thanks to everyone who stopped by, and especially those who purchased a copy of one of the books.

Special thanks to manager Brendan McGurk, who made Anne and I feel right at home, and the always energetic and enthusiastic Robin Noonan of Hopkins Press, who made the event happen!

Ed Bearss and “Faces of Gettysburg”

bearssI had the pleasure of speaking to a group gathered yesterday in Greencastle, Pa., for “1863—The Decisive Year of the Civil War.” The two-day event sponsored by the Allison-Antrim Museum and the Franklin County Visitors Bureau was coordinated by Ted Alexander, Chief Park Historian at the Antietam National Battlefield. My talk, “Faces of Gettysburg,” included a brief history of photography and capsule bios of 25 federals whose lives and military service intersected with the three-day Pennsylvania battle.

I arrived at the Green Grove Gardens Event Center about 3 p.m., and upon entering the building heard the distinctive booming voice of Ed Bearss, the Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service perhaps best known for his appearance on the Ken Burns Civil War series. Bearss, who reviewed all three of my books, and I are pictured here soon after he finished his talk about Ulysses S. Grant.

Thanks to Ted for the invitation, and for the opportunity to share soldier stories and images.

“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!

New on Disunion: A Slave’s Service in the Confederate Army

24disunion-img-blog427I originally wrote about Silas Chandler, the slave who served two masters in the Confederate army, in African American Faces of the Civil War. In a new version posted yesterday on the New York Times Disunion blog, I’ve revised the story with a few additional details, including this paragraph that provides context about slaves who served Mississippi Confederates:

“In 1888, Mississippi established a state pension program for Confederate veterans and their widows. African-Americans who had acted as slave servants to soldiers in gray were also allowed to participate. Over all, 1,739 men of color were on the pension rolls, including Silas.”

Read the full story.

“African American Faces” in the Baltimore Sun

sunFred Rasmussen, who writes the popular column Back Story for the Baltimore Sun, featured African American Faces of War yesterday. Fred attended my recent book talk at the Johns Hopkins Club, and I thoroughly enjoyed having he opportunity to meet him. Fred was born in raised in Dunellen, N.J., only a mile or two from my boyhood home in Middlesex.

An excerpt from Back Story:

Some 200,000 African-Americans enlisted in the Union army or navy — some of them were free while others were runaway slaves. They served as soldiers, servants or laborers.

Not only did Coddington, who lives in Arlington, Va., draw on his own collection, he turned to other collectors, historical societies and libraries such as the Beinecke Library at Yale University, which had images of the 108th Infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops in its collection, for instance.

He selected only images of men who were identified by name, which allowed him to go to the National Archives and the Library of Congress, where he was able to go through pension records, revealing a great deal of biographical information on the individuals.

Read the full column.

Book Talk at The Johns Hopkins Club

hopkins-clubYesterday I spent a delightful afternoon at the Hopkins Club, which is located on the picturesque Homewood Campus in Baltimore. The Club has a lunch lecture series, and in this first event of the academic year I was honored to talk about African American Faces of the Civil War.

We enjoyed an excellent buffet lunch which featured Maryland seafood, and the Hopkins Sundae—ice cream topped with fudge and caramel, which mimics the black and gold university colors. (Wondering if my alma mater has a desert. Is their a UGA Sundae?)

The room was packed, including several friends from Hopkins Press: Acquisitions Editor Bob Brugger, Publicist Robin Noonan, and Development and Publicity Officer Jack Holmes. Also in attendance was Fred Rasmussen, a well-respected columnist at the Baltimore Sun. Turns out Fred and I grew up about a mile-and-half from each other in New Jersey—Fred in Dunellen and I in Middlesex. Fred’s passion for his work and interest in history was clear from the moment we met.

The event was not without its drama on the roads. A car accident on the Beltway doubled a normally hour long trip. Road construction further slowed my progress. With less than 15 minutes before lunch began, I gave up my attempts to bypass the construction, hastily found a parking space across from the campus, and set out on foot. I made it with a few minutes to spare!