Portraits of African American Civil War Veterans from the Library of Congress

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Unidentified African American Civil War veteran in Grand Army of the Republic uniform with two children, probably his grandchildren.
Created / Published: Goodman and Springer, photographer, Mt. Pleasant, Pa., ca. 1900
SOURCE: Library of Congress; https://www.loc.gov/item/2018652209/

The Library of Congress has a great archive of photographs which includes these wonderful portraits of African American Civil War veterans. These men are shown wearing clothing and accoutrements of the Grand Army of the Republic, or G. A. R. The G. A. R. was a nation-wide organization for Union veterans of the Civil War. Continue reading

The Struggle of Black Civil War Veterans: “We will not allow n****** to come among us and brag about having been in the yankee army”


African American soldiers faced trials and tribulations during the Civil War. But the struggle did not end there.
Source: From Civil War Journeys; original source was not identified

There was much animus towards southern African Americans among white southerners after the Civil War. Something as simple as an African American’s pride in his military service could become a flashpoint for violence. Consider this case, from post-war Virginia:

Freedmen’s Bureau Agent at Brentsville, Virginia, to the Freedmen’s Bureau Superintendent of the 10th District of Virginia

Prince Wm Co. Va  Brentsville  Jan’y. 15″ 1866.

Sir:  I have the honor to inform you that a dastardly outrage was committed in this place yesterday, (Sunday,) within sight of my office, the circumstances of which are as follows.

A freedman named James Cook was conceived to be “impudent,” by a white man named John Cornwell; whereupon the whiteman cursed him and threatened him.  The freedman, being alarmed, started away, and was followed and threatened with “you d——d black yankee son of a b——h I will kill you”; and was fired upon with a pistol, the ball passing through his clothes.  He was then caught by the white man, and beaten with the but of a revolver, and dragged to the door of the Jail near where the affair occurred, where he was loosened and escaped.

He came to me soon after, bleeding from a deep cut over the eye, and reported the above, which was substantiated to me as fact by several witnesses.  I have heard both sides of the case fully, and the only charge that is brought against the freedman is “impudence”; and while being pounced upon as a “d——d Yankee,” and cursed and called all manner of names, this “impudence” consisted in the sole offense of saying, that he had been in the union army and was proud of it.  No other “impudence” was charged against him.

I know the freedman well, and know him to be uncommonly intelligent, inoffensive, and respectful.  He is an old grey-headed man, and has been a slave of the commonwealth attorney of this co. a long time.  He has the reputation I have given him among the citizens here, and has rented a farm near here for the coming season.  As an evidence of his pacific disposition, he had a revolver which was sold him by the Government, on his discharge from the army, which he did not draw, or threaten to use during the assault; choosing, in this instance at least, to suffer wrong rather than to do wrong.

To show you the state of feeling here among many people, (not all) in regard to such a transaction, Dr. C. H. Lambert, the practicing physician of this place, followed the freedman to me, and said, that “Subdued and miserable as we are, we will not allow niggers to come among us and brag about having been in the yankee army.  It is as much as we can do to tolerate it in white men.”  He thought “It would be a good lesson to the niggers” &c. &c.  I have heard many similar, and some more violent remarks, on this, and other subjects connected with the freedmen.

I would not convey the impression however, that there is the slightest danger to any white man, from these vile and cowardly devils.  But where there are enough of them together, they glory in the conquest of a “nigger.”  They hold an insane malice against the freedman, from which he must be protected, or he is worse off than when he was a slave.

Marcus. S. Hopkins.

Source: Excerpt from 1″ Lieut. Marcus. S. Hopkins to Maj. James Johnson, 15 Jan. 1866, H-59 1866, Registered Letters Received, series 3798, VA Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.

And this is certainly related to the above: These are the only monuments to African American Union soldiers that were installed below the Mason-Dixon Line prior to 1990 (the movie Glory was released 1989):


Colored Soldiers Monument, Kentucky


Monument to the 56th USCT Infantry, Missouri


Monument to the Colored Union Soldiers, North Carolina


West Point Monument, Norfolk, Virginia


Civil War Monument at Lincoln Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia
Source for photographs: see here.

Three monuments are in former Confederate states, two are in Border (Union slave) states. By contrast there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers spread throughout the former Confederate and Border states by 1990. Note that the two Virginia monuments are in African American cemeteries. Continue reading

Health Care, such as it was, for Civil War Veterans

A Bit of History partial Thomas Waterman copy
“A Bit of History – The Veteran” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1865-6. This is one of three images by Wood that shows the transformation of a man from a slave into a newly-recruited soldier for the Union army and finally into a veteran. Many soldiers wore the wounds and scars of the American Civil War into post-war life. Sadly, there were not always resources in their communities or beyond to help them with their health issues.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been ill the past few days, and I wound up having to make a long visit with the doctor. Unlucky me – I have an abdominal condition that will probably require surgery. But at least I have health care, so I can go to a doctor and get back to wellness.

Today, US military veterans have access to health care via the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and its Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 152 VA Medical Centers and approximately 1400 community-based outpatient clinics in the US. In 2014, the Veterans Health Administration was “rocked by scandal” due to “major problems with scheduling timely access to medical care.” But at least there is a system in place to attend to the health needs of our veterans.

Compare that to the circumstances for veterans, and especially black veterans, of the American Civil War. In the book Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, edited by Elizabeth Regosin and Donald Shaffer, the editors note that

The vast majority of former slaves were poor… (the) medical problems (of previously enslaved Union veterans) both contributed to and were compounded by poverty. Illness left former slaves with the medical bills that they could not pay or without access to proper medical care, leaving them in a position where they had to treat to themselves with herbal remedies or patent medicine, forms of therapy that sometimes ameliorated symptoms but rarely provided a permanent cure.

The book goes on to site the case of black Union veteran Isaac Petteway, who served in the US Colored Troops, 37th Infantry Regiment, and his wife Rosa Pettetway. In 1889, Rosa filed for a pension after her husband passed away. The following is from the deposition that was filed with the pension request and found in the National Archives:

Q. After coming out of the Army did your husband the soldier ever have any fever or pneumonia or was he troubled with any cough or lung disease?

A. He had a bad cough and after he was taken down with his fatal illness he had a desperate cough. He was always subject to cold and he had the chills bad often.

Q. Tell me all you can about his condition from the time you say he was taken down until he died?

A. He was down in his bed three years, helpless as a child, and I nursed [him]. He was full of pains and misery, and that leg would pain him. He would holler so you could hear him holler along way. He had a very bad cough and complained of his side and chest, and I’ll cross his breast and stomach. The ulcer on the leg would run part of the time and there again would break out again. The sore or a corruption did not [intelligible] above the knee. There were no running sores on his body only the old one.
I didn’t think he had any hemorrhage or bleeding, not as I knows of.

Q. What did you believe was the immediate cause of his death?

A. That leg, the pain in it run up into his body and took his life away from him

Q. How do you know that it was not pneumonia or consumption he died of?

A. I don’t know, only I think it was the leg.

Q. When you found your husband was dying was there no way you could have secured a doctor, is there no State or county provision for Doctors for the poor?

A. No Sir, You can’t get a doctor here [Beaufort, N.C.] without the cash… We were not able to employ any doctor. I just treated my husband with herbs and such like—we never had any Doctor

It doesn’t seem right that a veteran should go out this way, to use a colloquial expression. Dignified service should have resulted in dignified care. But our health care policies have evolved for the better since then, and thankfully so. I hope Isaac and Rosa Petteway are resting in peace with the knowledge that their country is trying to do better by the soldiers who followed him.

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.