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.

New Review of African American Faces in “The Journal of America’s Past”

african-american-faces-of-the-civil-war-200DPIThanks to to Roger D. Cunningham for his insights and observations on pages 97-98 of the spring/summer 2013 issue of The Journal of America’s Past (formerly Periodical). The full review:

This attractive volume is the third in a series of books on Civil War portraits, by Ronald S. Coddington, assistant managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. His first book, Faces of the Civil War, depicted Union soldiers, and the second, Faces of the Confederacy, showed Confederate soldiers.

Each of the author’s previous volumes included 77 images, accompanied by brief biographical sketches pieced together from various sources, including newspapers, regimental histories, and the military service records and disability pension records that are available at the National Archives. This book follows the same format, and its images include cartes de visite, ambrotypes, and tintypes, which come from public archives as well as several private collections. The images include infantrymen, cavalrymen, artillerymen, sailors, and a few noncombatants. The last category includes Robert Holloway, who was Maj. Gen. Ambrose P. Burnside’s servant, and a slave, Silas Chandler, who went to war with his Confederate master, Sgt. Andrew M. Chandler, of the 44th Mississippi Infantry. The tintype of the Chandlers also appeared on an episode of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow.

The rest of the images show the men, both freeborn and enslaved, who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), as well as a few sailors from the Union navy. Among the USCT images, there are a handful of officers, including Maj. Martin R. Delany, who served in both the 104th and the 52d U.S. Colored Infantry regiments. Capt. Louis A. Snaer, of the 73d U.S. Colored Infantry, was awarded the brevet rank of major for his gallant conduct during the assault on Fort Blakely, Alabama, in April 1865. Another soldier who wanted to be an officer but was denied that goal was Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood, of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry. Fleetwood was awarded the Medal of Honor for the heroism he displayed during the Battle of New Market Heights, which was fought near Richmond, Virginia, in September 1864. After the war, however, Fleetwood was able to secure a commission as a major, commanding one of the black battalions in the District of Columbia National Guard.

A few of the men who are depicted left the USCT after the war and enlisted in one of the six black regiments—four infantry and two cavalry—that were added to the Regular Army in 1866. These black regulars have come to be known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” After serving in the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry, Solomon Starks enlisted in the 9th U.S. Cavalry in 1866 and rode with that regiment to west Texas, where he died from dysentery at Fort Davis, a year later. Kendrick Allen also served with the 108th and after mustering out of the Union army and working as a stonemason for five years, he spent ten years in the 24th U.S. Infantry, before enlisting in the 9th Cavalry in 1881. Allen finally retired from the Army as a sergeant in 1897.

All those who are fascinated by Civil war photography or black history in general will find this volume to be a most enjoyable read. The book helps us to remember that during the Civil War a significant number of black men were willing to fight for their freedom or to help secure freedom for their fellow African Americans.

New Review of “African American Faces of the Civil War” in “Kansas History” Magazine

Kansas History Summer 2013The summer 2013 issue of Kansas History magazine includes a review of my book by Kelly Erby, as assistant professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Erby reviewed my volume along with Elizabeth D. Leonard’s Men of Color to Arms! Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, and the Quest for Equality.

Here is the portion of Erby’s article that address African American Faces of the Civil War:

Coddington’s book, as its title suggests, is an “album” composed of the photographs and personal stories of seventy-five African American participants in the Civil War. It is the third in the series written by Coddington, assistant managing editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. (His first two works showcase photographs of white Union and Confederate soldiers, respectively.) Coddington reminds us that the images of black men in uniform are considerably difficult to find because black soldiers usually could not afford to have their pictures taken. The author spent two years discovering portraits all over the country in museums, archives, and private collections. Then, through the creative use of African American newspapers and pension records, Coddington pieced together the biography of each man pictured.

African American Faces of the Civil War, like the photographs it presents, captures the moment when black men in America transitioned from slaves to soldiers and the Civil War became about more than preserving the Union. Unlike any single photograph, however, Coddington’s book depicts this moment from a diverse variety of perspectives. There is the image and story of First Lieutenant William Dominick Matthews of Kansas, who operated a station along the Underground Railroad and was the ‘first man of color” to respond to Kansas senator James Henry Lane’s early proposal to recruit black troops (p. 37). In fact, Matthews not only responded to Lane’s call but also raised his own company of two hundred former slaves. As the regiment awaited formal authorization to join the Union army, some of the men participated in a skirmish at Island Mound in Missouri, becoming the first black troops to engage in combat during the war. Matthews, Coddington finds, echoed Douglass in encouraging his fellow black men to don the Union blue, declaring, “If we fight, we shall be respected. I see that a well-licked man respects the one who thrashes him” (p. 39). Coddington also recovers the story of Private Allen W. King, a Kentucky slave bought by a drafted physician to serve as his substitute in the Union army, a legal option that many Northerners exercised. In addition to soldiers, Coddington’s volume includes servants and laborers who never officially joined the USCT but who served the cause of freedom in other ways. As Coddington relates, all of these men confronted and helped to challenge generations of racism and down about the capabilities of their race.

Note: The above mentions the book contains 75 images, when in fact the total number is 77.

View the complete index to the Summer 2013 issue of Kansas History.