“Let us never forget the debt we owe” (1897)
Let us never forget the debt we owe to the colored soldiers. Let us always be willing to give them whatever credit is their due.
We called upon them in the day of our trial, when volunteering had ceased, when the draft was a partial failure, and the bounty system a senseless extravagance. They were ineligible for promotion, they were not to be treated as prisoners of war. Nothing was definite except that they could be shot and hanged as soldiers.
Fortunate indeed is it for us, as well as for them, that they were equal to the crisis; that the grand historic moment which comes to a race only once in many centuries came to them, and that they recognized it. They saw that the day of their redemption had arrived.
They escaped through the rebel lines of the South; they came from all over the North; and, when the war closed, the names of one hundred and eighty-six thousand men of African descent were on the rolls.”
– From “The Negro as a Soldier in the War of the Rebellion,” by Norwood P Hallowell, published in 1897
The story behind these Civil War military portraits
From Mark Sanchez, the 2013 Liljenquist Family Fellow at the Library of Congress:
“The onset of war coincided with a boom in photography in the United States. By the start of the Civil War, photographs were much less expensive and much easier to produce than ever before. New technologies brought the price of the new ambrotype (glass-backed) and tintype (metal-backed) emulsion plates down to between 25 cents to $2.50 in the Union states. The average Civil War soldier, who might make between $11-16 per month, could finally afford his own personal photograph.
“The portraits of most soldiers were small — 2.75 by 3.25 inches was the most common size — and could be carried in a friend’s jacket pocket, mailed home to family, or held in the hand of a loved one. The photos were often kept safe in ornate frames and decorated cases, some made of leather or molded from hardened shellac compounds.
“For many of these soldiers, a wartime portrait was a major occasion, and might be the only photograph ever taken of them. In the props, pose, and clothing that each chose, a viewer today can search for clues about the subject’s personality through the way he presented himself for his moment before the camera.
“History has recorded little about most of the soldiers in these portraits. In fact, for the majority, we don’t even know their names. But their photographs have traveled on without them, passed from hand to hand over the decades until coming together in this collection.
“Today, these portraits, which might have been intended for a few friends and sweethearts, can be seen and studied by people around the world. Although we may not know their names or their stories, we can look into their faces and ask ourselves what they experienced and how they felt as they played their part in a war that changed a nation.”
Below, meet twenty of the African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War, presented via their antique portraits. While many of their names have been lost over time, the sacrifices they made for our country have not been forgotten.
An unknown African American soldier in Union uniform at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with bayoneted musket, cap box and cartridge box
An unknown African American soldier in Union corporal’s uniform
Unidentified African American soldier in Union sergeant uniform holding a rifle
African American soldier in Union uniform and Company B, 103rd Regiment forage cap with bayonet and scabbard
Unknown African American soldier in Union uniform with bayonet
Unidentified African American soldier wearing the uniform of the Union Army
An unidentified African American soldier portrait in a Union uniform
Unidentified African American soldier seated, wearing the Union uniform
An uknown young African American soldier in Union uniform with American flag
Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform with forage cap
An unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform
Black soldier seated with pistol in hand, watch chain in pocket
Corporal Kager Mays of Kentucky, who enlisted in 1864 in the 108th United States Colored Infantry and died of fever in 1865
Mounted cavalry soldier seated on horse
Seated black soldier, frock coat, gloves and kepi
Sergeant Tom Strawn of Company B, 3rd U.S. Colored Troops Heavy Artillery Regiment
An unidentified African American sailor in a Union uniform, sitting with arm resting on table
An unknown African American soldier in Union cavalry uniform with a cavalry saber
Unidentified African American soldier in Union cavalry uniform, with a sword