Black Boys in Blue: A Gallery of Young African Americans in Union Military Dress

African American Soldier Boy
Nathan Jones, Camp Metcalf, Va.
Photo of an African American boy with Union army cap and belt, probably pants as well. Camp Metcalfe was a fort in northern Virginia, no too far from Washington, DC. Nathan Jones was probably an escaped slave (often called “contraband” by Northerners) who lived near the Camp or did servant duties there.
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11192, LC-DIG-ppmsca-11193

“With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. And not for yourselves alone are you marshaled — you are pioneers — on you depends the destiny of four millions of the colored race in this country . . . If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship.”

- Frederick Douglass January 29, 1864, Fair Haven, Connecticut; address to the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry regiment (African descent)

During times of war, it is not uncommon to see boys dressed in the garb of soldiers. And if times are hard enough, boys might even take the role of soldier. In the American Civil War, African American boys had varied experiences which would dress them in the raiments of the armed services, or place them close to, or even into, the Union army and navy. (According to the National Archives, more than 10,000 troops under the age of 18 enlisted in the Union Army. About five percent of the Confederate Army troops were under the age of 18.)

This is a gallery of male youngsters in Union military dress. Some might have put on military dress simply to take an interesting photograph. Some might have been escaped slaves who lived near Union army camps, and did odd jobs or such for the soldiers, and were given uniforms to wear. Some might have been enlisted drummer boys. But all of these pictures indicate that many African descent boys were aware of, or even close to, the military conflict that involved their fathers or brothers or friends. How this affected them cannot be told from these pictures alone. But these photos give us pause to consider the effect of war on children and their families.


Taylor, a drummer boy for the 78th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops
This is an iconic picture in various Civil War texts.
The 78th regiment of the USCT was organized in April 1864 and served primarily in Port Hudson, Louisiana, until mustered out in January 1866.
Photo Source: National Archives

In some texts, the boy in the image is named Jackson. And he is sometimes seen in a photo wearing tattered clothing; refer to the images below:


Before and after images of drummer boy “Jackson”
Photo Source: US Studies Online;
see also here, page 7.

What’s going on here? According to Corbis Images, the boy in the “Portrait of ‘Contraband” Jackson,’ (is) supposed to look like many of the runaway slaves that flocked to the banners of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Used in combination with a photograph of Jackson as a drummer in military uniform, this was circulated to encourage enlistments among African Americans.” Indeed, the photographs make a poignant appeal to the conscience of black men: if a young boy was willing to serve, then why shouldn’t you?

Boy on Mount
Gen. Rawlin’s horse taken at Cold Harbor, Va.
This photo of an African American boy on a horse is described in the first edition of the book “Photographic History Of The Civil War, Volume IV, The Cavalry.” The book, published in 1912 and edited by Theo. F. Rodenbough, states:
“It is a proud little darkey boy who is exercising the horse of a general – John Aaron Rawlins, the Federal brigadier-general of volunteers, who was later promoted to the rank of major-general, U.S.A., for gallant and meritorious services during the campaign terminating with the surrender of the army under General Lee. The noble horse himself is looking around with a mildly inquiring air at the strange new instrument which the photographer is leveling at him.”
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-USZ62-131082


Robert Walker, a young African-American “First Class Boy” dressed in a sailor’s uniform, has “Our Bob” written on the bottom.
From Trans-Mississippi Photo Archive (ozarkscivilwar.org): “First Class Boys” in the U.S. Navy were generally young men under 17 years of age. They were paid $9 per month and performed various sailor duties, including serving as servants to the ship’s officers, standing watches, helping with work parties and serving on damage control parties.
Photo Source: Trans-Mississippi Photo Archive, from Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield (WICR 32071-L)

Sailor Boy African Anerican
Full-length portrait of an African American boy in nautical clothing
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers:LC-DIG-ppmsca-10904, LC-DIG-ppmsca-10905


Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform with forage cap
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-DIG-ppmsca-37079,LC-DIG-ppmsca-27079
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Portrait of a Washerwoman for the Union Army, around Richmond, VA, with a flag pinned to dress

Unidentified-Washerwoman-Who-Worked-for-Union-Army
Ambrotype photograph of an unidentified washerwoman for the Union Army, circa 1865, Richmond, Virginia.
Source: Photographic History Collection, Division of Information Technology and Communications, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

At the website for National Public Radio, Shannon Thomas Perich offers an interpretation of this image:

The flag (on the woman) especially raises questions as it is called out by the coloring. Why is a woman who is disenfranchised because of her skin color and her gender wearing the flag, often a symbol of freedom? Is that what it meant for her? If so, how did she describe freedom for herself and the nation? Is she wearing the flag by choice? Did she purchase this image? Did she own it? If not, then who did?

…This photograph was not made casually or by accident. Before she even sat for the camera, her dress was clean and pressed, and her hair coiffed. The pinning of the flag, and its coloring and the pink tint on her cheeks, are deliberate actions. The woman holds herself steady, with pride, perhaps assisted by a hidden head brace, and by her arm on the draped table. She holds our gaze with her eyes, which do not reflect happiness or relaxation, but seem to signal a bit of trepidation.

The enitre article from Perich, titled A Flag Of Freedom?, is here.

A Letter to Lincoln from a Colored Soldier: “I… grasp at the Flag… and Declared it shall never fall”


Letter from Hannibal Cox, 14th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry to president Abraham Lincoln
Source: From The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

This is a letter to Abraham Lincoln from an African American soldier which contains a poem:

From a man of no education. And have been doomed to slavery –
During life, and was born In Powhatan Co. and was raised in –
Richmond Virginia. And I am now a Soldier In U. S. Army. –
And I will Speak these few words In Answer to all whom it –
May Concern. Where Ever it may roam.

I have left my wife And Children but –
Tho. I. have not yet forsaken them. and made one grasp –
at the Flag of the union and Declared it shall never fall–
For we love it like the Sunshine, and the Stars and azure air. –

Ho for the flag of the union. the Stripes and the Stars of light.–
A million arms. Shall guard it. and may god defend the right.–
Ay, brothers let us love it, and let Every heart be true.–
And let Every arm be ready, for we have glorious work to do.–
Ho. for the Flag of the union. the Stripes and the Stars of Light.–
a million arms shall guard it. and may. God defend the right.–

I. Hope we may meet again In the bonds of love to greet
fare well I hope History may tell

Hannibal Cox
Co. B. 14th U. S. Colored Troops
Chattanooga Tenn
march 30th 1864

I. sends this for you to look at
you must not laugh at it

This poignant letter is from Hannibal Cox, a former enslaved person who joined the Union army and was a member of the 14th Infantry regiment, United States Colored Troops. The letter was sent to Abraham Lincoln via Benjamin Woodward, a Surgeon with the Union’s 22nd Illinois Regiment. Woodward wrote to Lincoln:

Permit me respectfully to enclose to You a letter received by me a few days since. The writer was a Slave held in bondage by a man named “Green” in Lincoln Co Tenn. In August last he escaped and came to me at the U S Gen Hospital at Tullahoma Tenn. While there the Soldiers taught him to read and write, for prior to that time he could do neither. Early this spring he enlisted as a Soldier.

This Mr Lincoln is but a sample of the glorious fruits of Your “Proclamation” of Liberty. When at Springfield Ill as You were leaving for Washington you said “Pray for me” a thousand hearts responded, and we now thank God who has so “led You into all truth” and thousands in the army rejoice in Your work and pray for you that you may be sustained till the great work which God has called You to is fully accomplished.

Hannibal Cox had fled bondage, but it was a troubled freedom. Liberation meant that he had to leave his wife and children behind. He swears to Lincoln, and perhaps himself, that he has not forsaken his family. In the meantime, his escape from slavery had given him literacy, a uniform, and a flag; and he was more than ready to fight for that flag.

Cox, as a “man of no education,” may have been uncomfortable with his use of words (and it’s possible that although he wrote the letter, it was transcribed by someone else) but he says firmly about his letter: “you must not laugh at it.” If Lincoln did read the letter, I don’t think he would have laughed. Lincoln might well have found it moving and touching, as no doubt many of us do today.

This is the grave marker for Hannibal Cox in Riverside Cemetery, Troy, Ohio from the website Find a Grave: :


Sources: Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops by John David Smith, p1-2; thanks to the member Littlestown at CivilWarTalk.com for information on Hannibal Cox’s gravesite.

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

Like Father, Like Sons: An African American Civil War Sailor and His Heirs

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Photograph of Union Navy veteran William B. Gould with his six sons.
This photograph of the Gould veterans originally appeared in the NAACP’s magazine, Crisis, in December 1917. All of the sons were veterans of World War I except William B. Gould, Jr., a Spanish-American War veteran. William B. Gould, already in his 80s, is seated wearing his GAR uniform. Standing behind elder Gould are, from left to right: Lawrence Wheeler Gould, James Edward Gould, William Benjamin Gould, Jr., Ernest Moore Gould, Herbert Richardson Gould, and Frederick Crawford Gould. (GAR = Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans)

William B. Gould was born a slave, but that would not define him or confine him. By the end of his life, he would leave a legacy of service for which any American would be proud. And it seems his sons learned from his example.

Gould grew up in the North Carolina port city of Wilmington, NC (which is now famous for its movie industry and for being the hometown of NCAA/NBA great Michael Jordan). On September 21, 1862, Gould and seven other men liberated themselves from captivity by navigating a boat down the Cape Fear River. Gould and the others were picked up by the USS Cambridge, and he became a member of the ship’s crew.

Gould was literate, and kept a diary of his days as a Union sailor. One of his descendants, William B. Gould, IV, used that diary to form the basis of Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. This is from the press release for the book:

The heart of this book is the remarkable Civil War diary of the author’s great-grandfather, William Benjamin Gould, an escaped slave who served in the United States Navy from 1862 until the end of the war. The diary vividly records Gould’s activity as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia; his visits to New York and Boston; the pursuit to Nova Scotia of a hijacked Confederate cruiser; and service in European waters pursuing Confederate ships constructed in Great Britain and France.

Gould’s diary is one of only three known diaries of African American sailors in the Civil War. It is distinguished not only by its details and eloquent tone, but also by its reflections on war, on race, on race relations in the Navy, and on what African Americans might expect after the war.

The book includes introductory chapters that establish the context of the diary narrative, an annotated version of the diary, and a brief account of Gould’s life in Massachusetts after the war.

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The elder Gould was clearly an inspiration to his sons. They enlisted in the US Army, and became part of the next generation of African American soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I.

As an accompaniment to the book, Stanford University hosts the website Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. The site features primary sources and photographs that tell the story of Gould in an interesting and compelling fashion. I very much enjoyed the site, and I look forward to reading the book. Highly recommended.

Shotgun Wedding, Civil War Style? (“A Subject of Morality”… and More)

Slavery and wartime, too, can make for strange bedfellows. Or just plain strangeness.

Consider the following Civil War “incident” that is at once bizarre, amusing, disturbing, outrageous and wonderful, but also, uniquely American. It raises all kinds of questions about race, slavery, and family; and about the authority of an occupying power to control, and even force certain behaviors on, an occupied population.

The story comes from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. As I mentioned in my previous post, Turner was a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, and part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in which this story was published.

First, some backstory. It’s June/July of 1865. Several months earlier, Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman in Durham, North Carolina, one of the steps in the end of the Civil War and the demise of the Confederacy. But going as far back as early 1862, the Union Army has captured and occupied various parts of the North Carolina coast. This includes Roanoke Island, the site of a large contraband camp/freedmen’s village.

During this occupation, the Union is “the law.” A Colonel named Holman is acting as judge, jury, and… executioner… while he addresses “legal” and other interactions among the inhabitants in the east NC area under his control. Holman has asked Chaplain Turner to help mediate a case involving “morality”… Turner tells the story:

Roanoke Island is still the theatre of many interesting incidents. Every imaginable phase of characters, every question having… virtue, however hatched with uncertainties through the phantasm scope of suspicion, or open in the vulgar revelry of the unconscionable audacious, are ever and anon before the bar of adjustment… It is nothing uncommon to have reports of the dogs barking, and such trivial affairs, handed in at Head Quarters… Colonel Holman, however, listens to them all, passes judgment upon them, and the parties respectfully retire.

But here is a circumstance to which I most respectfully invite your attention. The narrative runs as follows: Near Edenton, (a place about one hundred mile from the island,) lives an old rich slave-holder, who in the days of southern rights wielded an immense power in that community, or, in other words, he was one of the lords of the land.

He visited Wilmington about twelve years ago, and there saw a very handsome mulatto girl, or rather lady, and conveyed to his country mansion, and admitted to the lofty honors of sacred concubinage. In that very wholesome situation she has remained ever since, giving birth to six children, all illegitimate production of purchased connection. Providentially, both of these individuals had business before the Colonel, and during the investigation the Colonel’s attention was called to their mode of living.

The matter was referred to the Chaplain for counsel and advice, as it was a subject of morality, who decided with the Colonel that he should marry her at once. But he (the slaveholder) could not see the point; he showed many reasons why it would not do to marry a colored woman, in that part of the country. He argued skillfully in the false logic generally produced by slave-owners; finally, he was dismissed, and left with an exultant sense of his victory over Yankee morality.

Colonel Holman, after weighing the matter again, sent for me and finding the parties already there, rose upon his feet, and commenced as follows: “Sir, (looking at the slave-owner,) I have talked to you as a brother and friend: you have had this woman twelve years acting as your wife; she, in the sacred honesty of a lady, has in return given to you, your country and your God, six children: you brought her away from her home, her relations and friends, as a man would convey his wife; you have also devoured the flower of her youth, and torn from her cheeks the flush beauties of maiden-hood; you have reaped and consumed these charms, which God gave her to find a happy partner in life, and make her existence pleasant to the grave, ay! and to an eternal future. You have desecrated the sanctity of the matrimonial institution by force and unjust authority.

“But your day is gone: this is my day, and this great nation’s day-and as an officer of the United States, invested with power to execute justice, and carry out the proclamations of the President,–I tell you and your comrades, I tell all in my military district, such conduct shall not be tolerated. You can take your choice, either marry the woman or endow her and her children with property sufficient to support them for life, or I will demolish everything you have, hang, shoot, or bury you alive, before you shall turn that helpless woman and your ill begotten children away to die, or to be fed by my country, and your property given to hellish rebels. You starved our prisoners to death, and murdered in cold blood the best men God ever made, to sustain your infamous rotten oligarchy, and now, to add insult and injury, you propose to turn out your children. By the eternal God, I will sweep you all with one blast.”

At this point he (slave-owner) raised his voice, and in a trembling voice said: “Colonel, you need not say anymore. I can’t marry Susie and stay here; but if you will allow me time to dispose of my personal property, I will take her and go to the North, or to Canada and there marry her; I will sell my lower plantation, but my upper one I will hold on to.”

“Well, “ said the Colonel, “do you promise in the presence of myself and the chaplain to marry Miss Susan?”

“Yes, sir, I will: for I know it is wrong to throw her and the children away, for Suse has been a mighty good gal.”

At this point we all shook hands over the prospects, and the court adjourned, to meet again when he gets ready to marry Susan and go North.

The floor is open – what are your thoughts on this?

Note: The text from Turner is in An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson.

Wisconsin Union Soldiers and Runaway Freedwoman

Wisconsin-Union-Men-and-Freedwoman
Cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862.
This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 25 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

This Civil War era image depicts a self-liberated teenaged woman (AKA runaway slave) from Kentucky who was eventually escorted to freedom with the aid of Union soldiers from Wisconsin. Recollect that Kentucky, while loyal to the Union, was a slave state throughout the course of the Civil War. (Maryland and Missouri, which were also Union slave states, abolished the institution before the war ended.)

The story behind the picture is provided at the Oxford African American Studies Center website. The two men in the photograph were part of Wisconsin’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, which was “composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause.” They escorted the young woman in the picture from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of Levi Coffin, an Underground Railroad operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, disguising her as a “mulatto soldier boy.” The picture was taken in Cincinnati. The young woman, whose name is not identified, was eventually sent to Racine, Wisconsin. An expanded version of the story is below the fold.

I want to offer a hat tip to Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthhamer for highlighting this interesting image in their book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.

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