“The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship” by Deborah Willis; NYU Press. 256 pages, $35

A lesson on Woodson’s educational agenda


the black civil war

It wasn’t just a war for freedom. It was a war for the future.

Black soldiers during the Civil War weren’t just fighting for themselves. They were fighting for their children and all who came after. They were fighting for tomorrow.

“The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship’’ by Deborah Willis, delivers much more than the formal, carefully posed photographs of men in uniforms and their heartfelt letters home and to the world.

The book reminds us that even the ultimate fight for freedom — when Blacks and some Whites were on the same side — equality even then was barely a notion.

Army ban

Although Blacks had served in the Navy since 1792, they were prohibited from the Army. Bigots doubted Blacks’ bravery or feared their armed rebellion. Activists like Frederick Douglass knew that when Blacks were allowed onto the battlefield, it would be a giant leap forward for civil rights.

“Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, US,” Douglass wrote. “Let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth, or under the earth, that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

When the Civil War began, though, Blacks were still banned from the Army, yet many joined volunteer regiments where they could.

Mob attack

On April 18, 1861, six days after the war began, five volunteer militias from Pennsylvania marched through Baltimore to defend the Capitol in Washington., D.C. An angry group of Confederate sympathizers met them.

The mob grew outraged when they saw a Black man in uniform, Nick Biddle.

“Violence erupted,” wrote historian John David Hoptak. “They were pelted with stones, bricks, bottles and whatever else the vehement mob could find; some were even clubbed and knocked down by a few well-landed punches.”

Biddle was already 65 and had served in the militia since 1840. At the start of the war, he was a captain’s orderly. Yelling racial slurs, someone threw a brick at Biddle’s face.

His White comrades helped the injured man to his feet. The militia continued its march and finally managed to board a train to D.C.

This marked the first bloodshed in the Civil War, and it was a Black man’s.

A call to arms

By 1862, President Lincoln had quietly authorized the Union Army to form Black regiments. Douglass even wrote an early recruiting poster. “Men of Color To Arms! To Arms!” it began. “Fail Now, & Our Race Is Doomed.”

One anonymous Black soldier with the 55th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry wrote the New York Weekly Anglo-African that, although promised $13 a month, Black soldiers were paid only $7.

“How the authorities expect our families to live without the means to buy bread, pay house rent, and meet the other incidental expenses of living in these terrible times, we know not,” he wrote.

The ultimate sacrifice

Still, Blacks were eager to fight for freedom. Some had even escaped slavery to do so. Now, though, they endured twin tortures.

During battle, Black soldiers confronted crashing cannonballs. After, they worried about the families they had left behind. Fears of their fate, and thoughts of revenge, lingered.

Although they had to fight just to serve, more than 200,000 Black men defended the Union on land and at sea by the end of the Civil War.

Roughly 40,000 Black men gave the ultimate sacrifice, and 25 Black soldiers and sailors were eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. Women also served as nurses, cooks, and seamstresses. Harriet Tubman worked as a spy.

First Black doctor

Some served under fire in other ways, such as Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta. When war broke out, he offered his as a physician for six years, writing to Lincoln, “I can be of use to my race.”

Augusta became the U.S. Army’s first Black physiccian.

There were groundbreaking Black journalists, too, like Thomas Morris Chester, who covered the conflict for the Philadel

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