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.

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

  1. Thank you for suggesting that Harriet Tubman should have been included in the book of Civil War soldiers because of her sheroic strategies for the “Cumbee” River Raid expedition. This warrior, leading Officer Montgomery and the brave, Gullah USCT 2nd Regiment of South Carolina resulted in the freeing of well over 750 enslaved men, women and children, the destruction of not just the plantation homes, river mines, cotton, and munition stores into the Combahee River interior but also rail road supply lines, preventing the passage of much needed soldiers and supplies, possibly even salt, in and out of this Charleston region. Harriet Tubman was also singularly responsible for recruiting a majority of those newly freed men into the Union army for the War Department Of The South. (Remember, the raid was so distinctive that Colonel Higgenson of the USCT SC 1st (33rd), mirrored this strategy up the Edisto River a few months following Tubman’s success, but met strong rebel resistance. However this endeavor did result in the freeing of over 100 enslaved men woman and children.) It is true Harriet Tubman was called to serve as a Nurse. Working with the Christian Commission, (precursor of the YMCA), in Beaufort, South Carolina, she nursed the 54th at Ft.Wagner and rendered the milk of human kindness to soldiers, and contraband as far as Florida and even Ft.Monroe, Virginia but let us also remember she ducked bullets (Francis Harper Watkins-African American Women’s Convention), and could, “handle a musket”.

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