The Black Civil War Soldier
A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship
NYU Series in Social and Cultural Analysis
Published by: NYU Press
240 pages, 203.00 x 254.00 x 0.00 mm, 99 b/w illustrations
- ISBN: 9781479809004
- Published: March 2021
A stunning collection of stoic portraits and intimate ephemera from the lives of Black Civil War soldiers
Though both the Union and Confederate armies excluded African American men from their initial calls to arms, many of the men who eventually served were black. Simultaneously, photography culture blossomed—marking the Civil War as the first conflict to be extensively documented through photographs. In The Black Civil War Soldier, Deb Willis explores the crucial role of photography in (re)telling and shaping African American narratives of the Civil War, pulling from a dynamic visual archive that has largely gone unacknowledged.
With over seventy images, The Black Civil War Soldier contains a huge breadth of primary and archival materials, many of which are rarely reproduced. The photographs are supplemented with handwritten captions, letters, and other personal materials; Willis not only dives into the lives of black Union soldiers, but also includes stories of other African Americans involved with the struggle—from left-behind family members to female spies. Willis thus compiles a captivating memoir of photographs and words and examines them together to address themes of love and longing; responsibility and fear; commitment and patriotism; and—most predominantly—African American resilience.
The Black Civil War Soldier offers a kaleidoscopic yet intimate portrait of the African American experience, from the beginning of the Civil War to 1900. Through her multimedia analysis, Willis acutely pinpoints the importance of African American communities in the development and prosecution of the war. The book shows how photography helped construct a national vision of blackness, war, and bondage, while unearthing the hidden histories of these black Civil War soldiers. In combating the erasure of this often overlooked history, Willis asks how these images might offer a more nuanced memory of African-American participation in the Civil War, and in doing so, points to individual and collective struggles for citizenship and remembrance.
In a troubled age, when the past is increasingly called into question, we are all history buffs now. To that end, this remarkable book fills an enormous gap in our collective understanding of the past, a page-turner that will break your heart. Willis, professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts, centers extraordinary and largely unknown images of Black Civil War soldiers within a reported narrative that highlights the enormous hardships they faced and the contributions they made. She makes history feel like a family album. ~Fortune Magazine, named one of the "Best Books of 2021, so far"
The book aims to bring these stoic portraits of black soldiers to life – with personal stories, to family members back home, and interviews with historians and personal observations from a skilled photography expert. It’s what Willis calls the African American experience, as well as resilience. ~The Guardian
The scholar, author, curator, and photographer Deborah Willis makes a fascinating contribution to that conversation with The Black Civil War Soldier, her new book from NYU Press. In it, Willis gives a face and a story to some of the war’s most overlooked figures, from the Black men fighting for their freedom from slavery to the women who educated and tended to those men on the battlefield. ~Vogue.com
Memorable images abound in [this] historical catalog of American photography. Essential...a book that invites rereading. ~STARRED Kirkus Review
[S]heds light on the experience of black Civil War soldier through never-seen-before photographs from the 19th century. ~Daily Mail
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. ~New York Daily News
Willis, department chair for photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, had noticed a dearth of images of Black servicemen from the era. For The Black Civil War Soldier, she pulled together photographs, letters, and diary entries to shed light on not only what Black servicemen were experiencing, but also what Black teachers, Black doctors, Black children, and other members of the community were. ~Philadelphia Inquirer
Together, this narrative and the photographs make an astounding book that show an often-little-told human side of the War Between the States. ~Goshen News
At a time when victory in the Civil War was anything but assured, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass urged the North to arm African American soldiers to fight against the forces that had enslaved them in the Confederate South. In doing so, he recognized the vital visual argument for citizenship that a uniformed Black man would make with ‘the brass letter, US’ on his belt and an ‘eagle on his button.’ Now, in this breathtaking volume, the scholar Deborah Willis reveals to us the fullness of their humanity through a photographic record she interprets through the paper trail they left behind. At once intimate and panoramic, The Black Civil War Soldier is both a major contribution to Civil War studies and an album of our ancestors’ journey at the critical hour of American history that belongs to all of us as the descendants of their sacrifice. ~Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University
In the unmatched research presented in The Black Civil War Soldier, a wealth of lush images, majestic fashion, narrative elements, and crucial pictorial details—books, uniforms, guns among them—perform for the camera a telling contradiction to the underlying horror embedded in the text, and points to the formidable role of photography that Dr. Deborah Willis has long championed. Through the lives of these soldiers, sailors, doctors, and nurses as well as the stories of cooks, teachers, wives, and lovers, Dr. Willis weaves a compelling narrative through the photographic record where courage and activism, or what she has called ‘difficulty and desire,’ shines through ~Kellie Jones, author of South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s.
Deborah Willis’s vivid accounts of Black soldiers’ sacrifices on the battlefield and their compassion for those on the home front make this book a must read for all Americans. Skillfully employing photographs and other printed materials as equal sources of history, Willis’s nuanced depictions capture the urgent desire for freedom and full citizenship of more than 190,000 Black soldiers and sailors who volunteered for the Union. In The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship, Deborah Willis once again gives us a deeply researched, visually arresting, and textured chronicle of Black people at a crucial turning point in US history. ~Francille Rusan Wilson, author of The Segregated Scholars: Black Social Scientists and the Creation of Black Labor Studies, 1890–1950