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, not 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 Drummer Boy 78th Reg USCT
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


Young African American boy sitting on a case
The back of this photo seems to indicate that the photographer was located in Boston; this young man might have been from a free black family.
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-DIG-ppmsca-10864, LC-DIG-ppmsca-10865


Private Alexander H. Johnson, musician, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment; picture circa 1864
Per the Battle of Olustee website: Alexander H. Johnson, from New Bedford, Massachusetts, enlisted at the age of 16 as a drummer boy in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. He was the first black musician to enlist during the Civil War. Colonel Robert Shaw, who commanded the 54th Mass, referred to Private Johnson as the “original drummer boy.” He was with Shaw when the colonel died at Fort Wagner and carried important messages to other officers during the battle. Johnson is depicted as the drummer leading the column of troops on the memorial honoring Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts in front of the Massachusetts state house in Boston.
Photo Source: Massachusetts Historical Society, via artblart.com


Alexander H. Johnson, former musician, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, as an adult
Per the Battle of Olustee website: After the war, Alex Johnson was a member of both the Grand Army of the Republic General George H. Ward Post #10 and of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is frequently mentioned in the book We All Got History by Nick Salvatore. Alexander Johnson died 19 March 1930, at the age of 82, just a few weeks after the 67th anniversary of his enlistment in the 54th.
Photo Source: Battle of Olustee website

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