Ronald Coddington discusses his book “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album”

Author Ronald Coddington discusses his book “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album,” with CivilWarMonitor.com.

In an earlier post, I talked about the book African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album by Ronald Coddington. The book features photographs of Civil War era African Americans – most of them members of the United States Colored Troops – along with a biographical sketch of the persons who are pictured. It’s the third book in Coddington’s “Faces of the Civil War” series. The first book features photos and stories of white Union soldiers, and the second features Confederate soldiers.

The video above is an interview with the Coddington, in which he discusses the process for creating the book, including the challenges he encountered and the insights he learned. The interview is conducted by Civilwarmonitor.com, the digital arm of The Civil War Monitor, a quarterly magazine about the history and memory of the Civil War.

Coddington mentions that his desire to do the book came from a very brief interaction with a black woman who attended a talk he gave about his first book, the one that featured white Union soldiers. The woman looked through the book, told Coddington that there were black people who fought in the Civil War, and then just walked away. Right then an there, Coddington says, he knew he had to do a follow-up book that explored the black experience during the war. I think that woman would be more than pleased with the result.

New Book: “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album”


Cover for the book African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album by Ronald Coddington. Book published by John Hopkins University Press.

Ronald Coddington has produced the third book in his “Faces of the Civil War” series. His books feature photographs of civil war soldiers, and provide an annotation about them – for example, soldier name, background, war experience, and post-war experience. His latest work is African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album. 

African American Faces is notable for its exhibition of a large photographic record of “colored” Civil War participants. Over 75 African Americans are pictured and discussed. Most are Union soldiers, such as Sargent Major Lewis Henry Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass, who served in the famous Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry; and Major Martin Delaney, the black activist, newspaper publisher, and soldier recruiter who was the highest ranking African descent field officer in the Union at the end of the War. But several non-Union soldiers are included, such as Confederate slave Silas Chandler; Robert Holloway, the personal servant of Union Colonel Ambrose Burnside who was captured at the First Battle of Bull Run; South Carolinian Robert Smalls, who became famous for leading a group of slaves out of Charleston harbor and into freedom on a stolen steamboat; and Navy seamen.

The brief biography that accompanies each photograph serves to “flesh out” each of these men, and helps us understand that for African Americans, this was not merely a war for Union or Southern independence, but rather, was a struggle for freedom, equality and dignity.

And this is a book about men; all the subjects noted are male. If I could have given one suggestion to the author it would have been to include Harriet Tubman in the book. Tubman, a noted conductor of the Underground Railroad helped to lead a union raid in South Carolina to disrupt Southern supply lines and free local area slaves. This story would have made for an interesting complement to the others in the book.

African American Faces is written to be accessible to a large group of readers, and would be a welcome addition to middle school libraries and above, as well as being a fine addition to any personal library. As an elementary and high school student in the 1960s and early 1970s, I never saw an image of a black civil war soldier, nor did I hear anything mentioned about them. Coddington’s book further illustrates that there is a rich record from which to draw concerning this previously (and some say currently) neglected aspect of the Civil War.