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!

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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.

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.

 

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!

Maj. Appleton’s Stay at the National Gallery of Art

Bethann HeinbaughMy original wartime photo of Maj. John Whittier Messer Appleton of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry was delivered to the National Gallery of Art this afternoon at 12:30. The image will be part of a new exhibit, Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, that opens next month. Here, Loans and Exhibitions Conservator Bethann Heinbaugh performs a condition check. She noted a watermark in the upper left of the image, a nick in the lower edge of the mount, and pencil markings on the back of the image. Behind her are paintings from the NGS storage which will soon be digitized.

AppletonI took this photo of Maj. Appleton just before leaving the Gallery. Visible here is the paperwork associated with the loan. The acetate sleeves are mine.

Images of the Civil War: A Panel Discussion with Kevin Levin and Rick Britton

Images of the Civil WarI was fortunate to participate on a panel, Images of the Civil War, with author Kevin Levin and moderated by cartographer and author Rick Britton at the Virginia Festival of the Book, which was held in Charlottesville, Va., on March 22, 2013. Video of the hour-long discussion is now available.

Daguerreian Society Review of “African American Faces of the Civil War”

Craig James of the Daguerreian Society reviewed African American Faces of the Civil War, and it appears in the organization’s April-June 2013 newsletter. James notes of the photographs and profiles, “Each face and each description takes you further behind the front lines of the Civil War and deeper into the struggle for freedom.”

The complete review:

African Americans have always been at the center of Civil War controversy. Was Lincoln working to preserve the Union or was he interested in freeing the slaves? Depending on whom you ask, the answers may vary. Although African Americans are often excluded as significant contributors in the Civil War, they were there. With period photographs, Ronald S. Coddington allows the reader to look into the faces of men who were willing to sacrifice everything in order to have a better future. The personal glimpse into their lives gives an extraordinary dimension at texture to their presence as soldiers. This presence ranged from non-enlisted bodyguards like Robert Holloway, valet to Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, to the first African American field officer, Major Martin Robison Delany. Each face and each description takes you further behind the front lines of the Civil War and deeper into the struggle for freedom.

Daguerreian SocietyThe book is filled with real people and satisfies the question of how African Americans impacted the Civil War. The stories validate the contributions made by many African Americans through bravery, sacrifice, commitment, and achievement. Writing clearly, in an unbiased manner, Coddington exposes the good and the bad. The book illustrates the good, as it describes observations by an Eighth U.S. Colored Infantry white surgeon, who described the valiant stance of black troops during the Battle of Olustee in Florida in February 1864. The book also illustrates the bad, as soldiers like Privates James L. Baldwin and Charles Mudd are demoted just before the end of their tours of duty, for unknown reasons. The book is a must-read for all Civil War buffs and contains important historical data to complete a full circumference of Civil War history.

Recent issues of the Daguerreian Society newsletter are available for download.

The Underlying Truth in a Staged Image by a Gettysburg Photographer

Devil's DenAn excerpt from my guest post on The Johns Hopkins University Press Blog:

“I walked through Devil’s Den a few weeks ago with Chuck Myers, a veteran reporter and photographer for McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. A talented writer with a passion for history, Myers is a meticulous planner who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for information. Superintendent J. Robert Kirby of the National Park Service accompanied us. Kirby heads up operations at Gettysburg, and he is clearly at home there among the supersized boulders.”

Read the complete post.