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Of the 3 million men who fought in the Civil War, 200,000 were African American. Some were free men, some escaped slaves or slaves released by owners so they could contribute to the war effort. Civil War scholar Ron Coddington has compiled a collection of portraits of these men and used the images as a jumping off point for telling their stories. He joins Kojo to help us understand the Civil War as they experienced it.
- Ronald Coddington author, "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album"
Slideshow: African American Faces Of The Civil War
Images excerpted from “African American Faces of the Civil War” by Ronald S. Coddington. Copyright 2012 by Ronald S. Coddington. Reprinted here by permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
Read An Excerpt
From the book, “African American Faces of the Civil War” by Ronald S. Coddington, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Of the 3 million men who fought in the Civil War, about 200,000 were African-American, a small percentage perhaps but a significant number. Some were freedmen, others, slaves whose owners gave permission for them to fight. For them, the fight was for their own freedom and that of their descendants, with no guarantee they'd be on the side of victory.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITheir stories have not often been told in the century and a half since the war, but one scholar has collected an album full of portraits of these soldiers and sailors using the images as a jumping-off point for piecing together their stories and ensuring they're not forgotten because, as he says, the history of the Civil War is the stories of its soldiers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us better understand the Civil War as black soldiers experienced it is Ronald Coddington. He is a Civil War scholar and the author of several books, the latest being "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album." He's also an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Ronald Coddington, thank you for joining us.
MR. RONALD CODDINGTONHey, Kojo. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation at 800-433-8850. Do you remember learning about the role of African-Americans in the Civil War when you were in school? What stories about black soldiers of that era have you heard? 800-433-8850. You can also send us email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDIOr simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation with a question or comment there. Ronald Coddington, as it does for so many, it's my understanding your interest in the Civil War started in childhood. But stories of battles are not what got you hooked. What did?
CODDINGTONThe first and most important influence was Civil War photography. When I was 13 years old, I began going to flea markets and garage sales with my parents on Sunday afternoons. And at one of those shows, I found a Civil War photograph that was about the size of a baseball card. I was also a big baseball card collector.
CODDINGTONSomehow, I became very attracted and interested. The quality of the portraits, the intensity of the images of these men that were on the frontlines, I found extremely interesting. And I began spending my newspaper boy money, my weekly earnings to buy photographs.
NNAMDIThe Civil War coincided with major advances in photography, and each story you tell starts with an image. What are the three types of photograph we'll find in your latest book?
CODDINGTONThere are the first -- in terms of putting in terms of historical timeframe, the oldest images you'll find in there are the ambrotype, which is a glass plate covered with a chemical, and then there's a piece of black paper or another piece of dark glass behind it that makes the negative image into a positive. Those were very popular beginning in the early 1850s. Around 1855, the tintype comes into play.
CODDINGTONAnd that's the same sort of chemical composition, only it's on an iron plate. So to go from glass to tin is less expensive. And then the third type of photograph is the carte de visite or visiting card, which is a French import to the United States. Those are on paper and much, much less expensive to produce. It really democratized photography, about 15 cents per photo versus 50 cents for a tintype and a dollar for an ambrotype.
NNAMDISo you could reproduce more of those. It's my understanding that you always start your research with the photo. So I wonder, why and when you first look at the photo of a soldier, what details are likely to catch your eye?
CODDINGTONI -- my attention goes immediately to the individual's face, and I think most of us have that same experience, whether you're looking at an image on Facebook today or looking at a historic photo. You go to the face, and you see the intensity. You get a sense of what they might have been like as a person, and then you begin to expand. And you notice what type of uniform they're wearing.
CODDINGTONYou notice, how they are posed, are they seated, are they standing, are they leaning forward, are they sitting back, are they holding their musket, do they have a knife, are they wearing a hat? All those things begin to catch my attention and form somewhat of an impression of what that person -- how they thought of themselves when they sat in the photographer's studio.
NNAMDIWell, you know, today we have our digital cameras. We have our mobile devices. We can take photos with everything. But you're talking about the latter part of the 19th century here, the mid to latter part of the 19th century when photography, at least certainly to my mind, was brand-new. How comfortable were these soldiers in front of a camera, taking pictures?
CODDINGTONImagine this is the first generation. This is -- it's not only the Civil War generation. This is the photography generation. Give an example, when photography, the first successful commercial form of photography came out in 1839, Ulysses S. Grant is 17. George Armstrong Custer is 1. President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass are in their late 20s, early 30s.
CODDINGTONSo they grew up with this. And, as many individuals did, what did they see before photography? They saw, in most cases, engravings that were made from paintings, these stiffly-posed images with the props that represented who they were as men and women. So they imitated what they saw.
NNAMDIThey did the poses with which they were familiar. This is your third book of portraits of Civil War-era soldiers. What made you decide to focus your research on African-Americans for this volume?
CODDINGTONMy first book was on Union soldiers based solely upon my collection, about 80 images identified wartime images of soldiers, and my very first event to talk about the book was in Baltimore at the book festival. The book is published by Johns Hopkins, so it was nice to be able to go to Baltimore for that event. And very early on, one of the first individuals that came up to my table was a woman who picked up the book and went through it page by page very carefully. And I thought she was going to buy and ask me to sign it.
NNAMDIOffer high praise.
CODDINGTONExactly. I'm a rookie author, my first time out. Instead, she handed the book back to me, and in a very firm way, she said, you know, there are also men of color who participated in the Civil War. It was nothing that I could possibly...
NNAMDII know that woman.
CODDINGTONI hope she's listening today.
CODDINGTONAnd so I knew then and there that I was going to do the book. There was no question about it, only a matter of timing when it would happen.
NNAMDIThe book is called "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album." We're talking with the author of the book. He is Ron or Ronald Coddington. He's a Civil War scholar and the author of several books. As I said, it's called "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album." Ron is also an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
NNAMDIAnd we're inviting your calls, questions or comments at 800-433-8850. Ron, once you found the photos, you worked on the -- on unearthing, if you will, the stories of the men in them. What kind of records turned out to be the most valuable to find out these men's stories?
CODDINGTONMy primary source, my go-to place is the National Archives here in Washington where they have military service records and pension files for the soldiers or the widows. The military service records give a great month by month account of the basic facts of the soldiers' life, and they helped me to reconstruct what their wartime experience was all about, where they were, what their -- what rank at which they served, when they enlisted, when they mustered out, if they became a casualty.
CODDINGTONSo with that, I get the skeleton of what their military service was all about. The other files, the pension and most of the men or after they passed, their widows, if they survived, would file for a pension. One of the surprises to me early on was when I requested these files from the archives. And when you request them, in this case, you get the original documents, which is quite a thrill in itself.
CODDINGTONYou can imagine looking through all these original papers. And what I was finding is the files were typically twice as thick as their white counterparts. And as I began reading through the documents, I came to understand why -- you have to recall that most of these men could not prove their birth date. They could not prove a marriage date.
CODDINGTONThey could not prove other legal facts of their lives, so special examiners were sent out to Mississippi, Tennessee, across the South and into the Northern states as well to interview people who knew them. And that included the former individuals who owned them, and so you get their...
NNAMDIA much richer story.
CODDINGTONWell, you begin to learn about what their childhood was like. You get some sense of where they were. And then, of course, after the war, you get to learn more about what their life was like and what they endured in the post-war era.
NNAMDIStarting to go to the telephones, we will start with Veronica on Capitol Hill in Washington. Veronica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VERONICAHi, yes. I want to thank the gentleman for the book that he's written. My son who attends school here in D.C. did a paper on African-Americans in the Civil War, and his eyes just opened. It was such an opening for him because I thought it was important for him to understand that African-Americans were not docile players during this period, that their freedom wasn't given to them because white people fought it for them, but rather they were active participants, not just as soldiers but as supporters, whether they were playing as spies or on all levels.
VERONICAAnd I also think that if we were to teach the Civil War correctly, I think it would do huge to help improve -- or improve understanding about race relations in these United States so that people don't walk around here and think that black people didn't fight for what they wanted.
NNAMDIVeronica, thank you very much for your call. You may want to swing your son by the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum on 1925 Vermont Ave. Northwest. You can find a link to that on our website. You can also find a link to the show that we did on July 12 of 2012 in which we spoke with Frank Smith, the founder and director of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum. That was with guest host Rebecca Roberts. Thank you for your call. Here is Bob in Wheaton, Md. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBYes, sir. Mr. Coddington, you also have a column in the Civil War news?
BOBOkay. And I'm a fan of your work and -- but I -- when I heard the intro to the show early this morning, Kojo, you used the term the myth of the black Confederates. And that's an interesting topic. And I've researched it quite a bit. And my collection of information, I have over 20 pension records for black Confederate soldiers from the state of Tennessee. I have the compiled military service records actually based on a (unintelligible) North Carolina state troops and census records of two brothers that served in the north -- the 37th North Carolina state troops.
BOBAnd they were -- there was two spellings, but their last name was Cousins, two brothers. The older brother in the census records reveal that he could write, owned property, had a white wife, and his younger brother also owned property. Both of them were listed as mulatto. The older brother was killed in action at the Second Battle of Manassas. The younger brother was captured at Petersburg and was imprisoned at the POW camp at Point Lookout, Md.
NNAMDIWell, you know, Bob, there is an aspect of that controversy that is addressed in the book "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album," so I'm going to allow Ron Coddington to go to it because it would appear that the reason that it might be a myth is because the people who we may have mistaken for soldiers were actually not. As far as you know, is there any truth behind that notion? And you may want to talk about the story behind the photo of Silas Chandler, who is on -- I'm looking at it on page 76 of your book. Go ahead.
CODDINGTONWell, Kojo, as you referenced earlier, the work that I do begins with finding the photographs. I spent more than two years searching for images of identified wartime soldiers. And I was looking for both Northern and Southern soldiers. And during that time, I was not able to find one image of a black Confederate enlisted man.
NNAMDIWell, I'm looking at Silas Chandler. He has a knife in his right hand. He seems to have what looks like a musket on his left hand.
CODDINGTONHe has -- yes. He has all the trappings of a soldier. He has the uniform coat, as you can see, and the white soldier sitting next to him is dressed in a very similar fashion. And there was quite a bit of discussion around his story, particularly on the Internet. I came -- became aware of the story about the same time I learned about the photograph. And I contacted the state of Mississippi, their archives, because the white soldier served in the 44th Mississippi Infantry.
NNAMDIThe white soldier who is sitting next to him.
CODDINGTONExactly. Also holding a gun, also looking ready for action, and I was surprised to find that the state had pension files for not only the white soldier but also Silas Chandler. So I paid my fee. The forms came in the mail. And I knew instantly that Silas was not a black soldier. The forms told me all I needed to know.
CODDINGTONThe form for the white soldier said application for a Confederate soldier. Silas' application said the application for the servant of a Confederate soldier. So a bit of new information here is that the state of Mississippi recognized servants to Confederate officers, and there were a lot of men who served in that capacity during the war.
NNAMDIWho were servants to Confederate officers, and so it is conceivable, maybe even likely, that they were confused because of pension records and others to be soldiers themselves?
CODDINGTONYeah. So if you were having a reaction to the photograph, it is very valid to look at the uniform and the gun and assume that he was a soldier. But when you begin to dig into the record, then that begins to tell a different story. Now, there were also men of color who served union officers as servants. So that's an entirely different aspect of the war. And I wanted to write about some of those men, too, because you have that time during the Civil War, from 1861 to 1863, when African-Americans were legally not allowed to serve in the volunteer forces of the United States.
NNAMDII think Frieda in Alexandria, Va. wanted to underscore that point. Frieda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRIEDAYes. My question is did the author who -- I mean, the person you are speaking with, did he know that the Southerners had their body servants with them who went everywhere with them?
NNAMDIThat's the point he was just actually making, Frieda.
CODDINGTONYes. In fact, Frieda, Silas Chandler traveled with -- I should back up just a second. Silas Chandler was a "family slave" that was owned by the mother of the soldier that he went off to war with. After that soldier was wounded at Chickamauga, Silas went back home to Mississippi and accompanied another brother to war in a Confederate cavalry regiment. So Silas served from 1861 to 1865 in -- with two Confederate soldiers.
NNAMDIServants of African-Americans alongside a master wasn't a practice not only seen on the Confederate side. So tell us a little bit about Robert Holloway. Who was Robert Holloway?
CODDINGTONI discovered Robert Holloway's photograph at the Rhode Island Historical Society and was quite surprised to find two references to him in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, which is approximately 150 volume set of all the primary battle reports and other documents written by the generals and other folks from that time period.
CODDINGTONThese two documents involved Ambrose Burnside, who is a major general in the Union army. And for those of you who are new to the Civil War, you may not know the name Ambrose Burnside. But, you know, the play on his last name, sideburns, because he had these incredible side whiskers. So as it turns out, Ambrose Burnside and Robert Holloway had been together. Robert…
NNAMDISomehow, Robert Holloway found himself in New Mexico.
CODDINGTONYes. Somehow, got from Virginia to New Mexico, wasn't able to get at the origin of that part of the story. But this happened in 1850, 11 years before the war began. So Robert travels with Ambrose Burnside all the way back East. They go to the Civil War together. And at the First Battle Of Bull Run, Burnside's men got pretty beat up in battle and are involved in the well-known retreat all the way back to Washington.
CODDINGTONBurnside comes back alone because Holloway has been captured by the Confederates. He's brought to Richmond where Robert is put to work in the prisons as a cook and, I assume, in various other roles. These two documents, these two notes that I refer to in the official records involve Burnside trying to get Holloway back, and he ultimately organizes what amounts to be a trade for five high-ranking Union officers. He gets them their servants back, and they return Robert Holloway to Burnside.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. Frieda, thank you very much for your call. When we come back, we will take your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. Do you think histories of the Civil War tend to ignore minority participants? Why or why not? Did any of your ancestors serve in the Civil War? How does that connection to the conflict shape your understanding of it? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ronald Coddington. He's a Civil War scholar and the author of several books, the latest of which is "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album." He's also an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle for Higher -- Chronicle of Higher Education and taking your calls at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIDuring this war, soldiers from each side brought different views of what they were fighting for to the front. You point out that African-Americans' perspective was unique during the war, but ultimately became the narrative. How so?
CODDINGTONYes. When you -- in the letters that I've read, in the newspaper articles and other primary-source documents, I've researched, freedom...
NNAMDIAfrican-American newspapers, eh?
CODDINGTONAfrican-American newspapers, very vibrant at this time, continuing on. The idea, the topic of freedom, this is something that they're always -- it's always being discussed. There's no question the narrative is the end of slavery. It's freedom. And not only that, it's looking ahead. They realized that there is prejudice. They already -- they've been experiencing that all of their lives. It's been going on for generations.
CODDINGTONBut they're looking forward to a time when they have their freedom and they gained citizenship and then they're able to face what one soldier calls the moral war. They know this is coming. That's a very different narrative than their white Northern counterparts. Those soldiers are starting the war, talking about preserving the country that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought for during the revolution. It's really -- the conversation is about preservation. It's only later on after the...
NNAMDIAnd even on the Union side, even the Union soldiers did not have the conversation about slavery.
CODDINGTONExactly. It's not until 1863 that I'm starting to see this crop up in letters. And, of course, the Confederate narrative is very much about preservation, too. The reference is to, once the tyrannical Lincoln administration, the black Republicans take over, it's really about having their country and having it the way they want, which is, in effect, preserving all their institutions, including slavery.
NNAMDIAnd the narrative that has survived today is?
CODDINGTONWell, I think all three narratives are there. The one that we emphasize or the ones that we emphasize tend to be this idea that had started out, the sort of that white soldier view that started out to preserve the Union became about slavery. I propose that this -- the narrative from the African-American point of view is something that is worthy of further scholarship and further discussion. There's a lot to explore there. And I've tried to add to the conversation through the stories of these individual soldiers because they touch on so many threads of what is a complicated and complex narrative.
NNAMDIOn April 3, 1865, as Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders were fleeing Richmond, Union troops, including one William Wright, were advancing on the city. How did Wright come to serve in the Civil War?
CODDINGTONHe was a slave in Kentucky. His master was a former ship captain, a war veteran himself, had a number of slaves, including William Wright, and was one of the slave owners that, when the war happened and when the Union troops began to move into the area -- keep in mind that Kentucky is a border state -- he knew that the right thing to do was to follow the lead of many others and free William.
CODDINGTONSo he accompanied William to an enlistment place and vouched for his identity, got him into the Army and then went about -- went back to his home. William, in the space of about nine months, goes from basic training in Kentucky. He moves to Virginia, and he's, as you mentioned, one of the first troops to go into Richmond.
CODDINGTONAs he's coming over the hill into Richmond, he sees the town burning. He sees the smoke coming up. He sees displaced people all on the streets. This was his view. And to go from a farm on Kentucky to that view in such a short period of time is a remarkable event and, I think, a representative story of the transformation that these soldiers -- these men were going through from this journey from being slaves to freedmen.
NNAMDIBut then he also had another fearful glimpse into the future when, after the war, he returns to Kentucky to be an employee, not a slave, on his former master's farm. And what happens to him then?
CODDINGTONHe is back on the farm. He has a different relationship now.
NNAMDIHe is a veteran.
CODDINGTONHe is a veteran. He's very proud of what he did, what he fought for, of his contribution. Vigilante groups, however, are active very early on. We're looking at 1866. And even though his former owner is fighting for him and trying to help he and his family to manage the pressure, the stress, the violence that they're encountering, the threats and violence are too much, and eventually he is forced to leave. And he and his family make it all the way to Iowa, a quiet corner of the United States, and there they begin a new life again.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Ronald Coddington, Civil War scholar and the author of several books, the latest being "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album." Let's go to Howard in Fairfax, Va. Hi, Howard.
HOWARDHello and good afternoon. I'm enjoying it. I'm from Petersburg, Va. So the -- almost the end of the Civil War, I used to play in these trenches as a boy, we all did, and worked at the Battlefield Park. My question is, does the book address the pension file investigations of the black soldiers?
CODDINGTONHoward, are you talking about special investigations -- special examiners that were sent out?
CODDINGTONMm hmm. A number of the files that I saw were assigned special examiners, and my understanding of their job is that when the examiner, the normal examiner that was assigned to the case had questions or, for some reason, if the application was in doubt of the soldier, that could be that they doubted whether or not their war service was genuine, whether or not they suffered a particular injury or complained from a certain ailment, the special examiner would be sent out to investigate.
CODDINGTONAnd I found numerous examples in the files of examiners going to seek out former owners, other individuals that knew them. In some cases, the files still have original photographs, which is quite a surprise when you find those. I had a very nice encounter with a gentleman named Dennis Edelin over at the National Archives who was working to try to save and preserve all those images. So when I would find one, I would alert Dennis and say I've got one for you.
NNAMDIAnswer your question? Does that...
HOWARDThank you. Yes.
NNAMDIThank you very much. We move on, therefore, to Daniel in Fairfax, Va. Daniel, your turn.
DANIELHi, Kojo. I love your show. Ronald, I was calling because I'm an Asian-American, a 21-year-old student who used to love Civil War history. Growing up in Fairfax, we used go to Gaithersburg, Manassas, everywhere. But when I was around 12 and I found that I wanted to enlist in a re-enactment troop, I mean, I was discouraged from the idea, not by anybody else, but just by the thought that if an Asian-American was in an reenactment troop, it would just look odd.
DANIELAnd ever since then, I've kind of had, like, a mental block of studying a lot of American history 'cause knowing that I don't have a very personal stake in things, and I can't join the, you know, Sons and Daughters of the Revolutionary war or anything like that. So I'm wondering if you might be able to suggest a different way of thinking about history that might help me see American history differently.
CODDINGTONYes. Daniel, I -- in some ways, I wrote this book for someone like you who is not or maybe had an interest in the war or had an interest -- somewhat of an interest in history. I am fascinated by the stories of these men. And I don't know if it's -- if you set aside race, set aside gender and just look at the stories of what these men did, what they were called upon to do, I find them to be particularly motivating and inspiring.
CODDINGTONWhen you think about the men in this book, just imagine we're around 1863. These men have lived in a country that has not been friendly to them. They've been declared a property. They have no rights as citizens. They hope to have those rights someday. Yet they understand that this is a war about freedom, and there's really -- there's not promises. There's a lot of risk and no promises, and yet they enlist anyway, not in thousands or tens of thousands but 200,000 men altogether. And I draw a lot of inspiration from their courage, and I hope that you will, too.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Daniel. Listeners may be familiar with the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, the regiment on which the film "Glory" is based. One portrait you feature of a soldier from the 54th depicts him holding a tattered flag. What's the story of that flag and the man, William Harvey Carney, holding it?
CODDINGTONWilliam Carney was a sergeant and participated at Fort Wagner. I was very fortunate to find a number of tellings of his story over the years after the war. He lived until the early 1900s, so I found a number of accounts. He's best known for one statement, and the statement is, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground."
CODDINGTONThat goes back to him grabbing the flag at the base of Fort Wagner, along with Col. Robert Gould Shaw and hundreds of his comrades, and going up what may have seemed like an impossible climb up this parapet against entrenched Confederates who were raining down shot and shell on them. Carney is one of the few that makes it to the top of the parapet, and the intensity of the bullets, the intensity of the moment is causing him to crouch down.
CODDINGTONThere's just so much coming at him. And he's still holding the flag. Finally, he knows that he can't remain there forever, and he makes his way down the parapet with the other survivors. He's wounded several times as he's making his way back down, and he famously rejoins his surviving comrades and makes that statement. The image of him is wonderful. He's standing, looking square on at the camera. His face is slightly raised. He's holding that tattered flag. And you know that this man means business. It's a powerful photograph.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. The line seems tied up -- the lines seem tied up right now, so you may want to ask a question or make a comment by going to our website, kojoshow.org. If you feel disconnected from the history of the Civil War but would like to find an entry point for learning more, tell us what would make it more relevant to you. 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Ronald Coddington. He's a Civil War scholar and the author of several books. The latest of his books is "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album." Ron Coddington is also an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. We had a caller who couldn't stay on the line who wanted to know why there were not more acknowledgements of leadership in -- among African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, especially those who may have been officers.
NNAMDIWhen black soldiers and sailors were allowed to serve in the Union forces, they still faced a lot of prejudice, and the brass was conflicted about their service in leadership positions. Tell us about William Dominick Matthews and how he had roots in Maryland and how he personified that issue.
CODDINGTONHis story is certainly representative of coming to terms with black leadership in the military at the time. Born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, goes to Baltimore when he was a young man and tries to make a life as a commercial fisherman in the Potomac and the Chesapeake. Restrictive laws eventually cause him to abandon this occupation, and he decides to move, as he says, to someplace that's freer than the state.
CODDINGTONHe goes, of all places, to Kansas. This is 1856, and Kansas, as some of your listeners may know, was in the throes of conflict. John Brown and other abolitionists are struggling against those who are on the other side of the equation with slavery. William Dominick Matthews becomes involved in the Underground Railroad. He opens up a house, and he's entertaining guests in the front. He has escaped slaves in the back.
CODDINGTONWhen the war comes along, he raises a company of 100 men -- this is in 1861 -- and offers them to the government. The government says, no, thank you. This is a white man's war. A year later, he tries again. This time, we have some changes. The government is beginning to come around to legalizing enlistment for African-Americans. And so, this time, he raises somewhere between 80 and 200 men for a regiment, and this regiment is the first Kansas colored infantry.
CODDINGTONAnd they became very well known because it's the first recorded action in which African-Americans fought in combat as soldiers. This is at Island Mound, Mo., in the fall of 1862, a full nine months before the 54th Massachusetts Infantry is at Fort Wagner. Now, Matthews, because of the number of men he raised and the fact that everyone considers him the heart and soul of the regiment, he's really entitled. He's earned a captain's commission.
CODDINGTONBut the mustering officer refuses to read him and allow him to muster in at this rank. And they try -- he tries a number of things. His abolitionist friends try to come to his rescue. They can't do it. Eventually, in the late 1864, early 1865, he gets back into the war again, and this time there's been another incremental change, and he is allowed to become an officer. This time he serves as a lieutenant in an artillery unit.
NNAMDIA man who put his own regiment together.
NNAMDIAnd for our caller Daniel in -- who called earlier, maybe Charlotte in La Plata, Md. may have a response for Daniel. Charlotte, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHARLOTTEHi, Kojo. Hi. Yeah. I just wanted to say to him I'm a re-enactor. I don't take part in Civil War, but I do take part in Hundred Years' War re-enactment. And there are so many different living history groups in the area. I didn't hear whether you were in the D.C. area or not.
CHARLOTTEBut I would encourage you to come out to an event, a time line event, and talk to different groups because there are groups that are genderless where a girl can try to play a boy if she can pull it off. There are groups that are raceless, where you can play people -- portray people of a different race than you necessarily are.
NNAMDIAnd how can Daniel find out more about those?
NNAMDIHow can he find out more about those?
CHARLOTTEWell, there's an event called "Marching Through Time" coming up in Glenn Dale, Md., and he could go find out about those. There are various websites that -- maybe search re-enacting different races. I have a friend who runs a blog, but I don't remember the name. I think it's reenactor.net. But there are different places that you can go and Google this and find blog posts about it and get in contact. It's a small community.
NNAMDIOK. And here's Ron Coddington.
CODDINGTONYes. I just wanted to add that I've been to a number of re-enactments, and I've seen women who are also re-enacting soldiers in the ranks.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Charlotte. We move on to Terry in Silver Spring, Md. Terry, your turn.
TERRYHi, Kojo. I want to preface what I want to say with this. First of all, the -- originally, the Civil War was fought to preserve the Union, and you had slaves in the North as well as in the South. They had slaves all through the North. I have -- and I don't remember where I read it, but blacks -- I guess when the war was going very poorly for the South, they did offer blacks their freedom if they would fight in the war.
TERRYAnd I remember distinctly that Frederick Douglas was so incensed when he heard that blacks were fighting for the South. They weren't fighting for the South. They were fighting for their freedom, the same as they did in the North. But he was so incensed that he said if they were caught, they should be shot. And I don't know where I read it, I don't remember, but I remember distinctly that being the case.
NNAMDIWell, sources are very important in this conversation. Are they not, Ron Coddington?
NNAMDIWhere you read something could be an indication of the, well, bias of who wrote it.
CODDINGTONAnd I can tell you that the Confederate government did legalize the enlistment of African-Americans as soldier for the Confederate Army in the middle of March 1865. Keep in mind that Appomattox happens a few weeks later, so not much came of that. There was a healthy dialogue throughout the war by Confederate leaders about what the role of African-Americans, of slaves should be.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. One figure from the Civil War era who's getting a lot of attention lately is Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker. She is featured in the Steven Spielberg film, and her friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln is at the center of a new production at Arena Stage called "Mary T. & Lizzy K." It's running now through April 28. You write about a friend of the president's who actually came to the U.S. from Canada to serve in the war. Tell us about Anderson Abbott.
CODDINGTONYes. Often overlooked for the role of African-Americans who came from Canada, Abbott was born in Canada. His parents had lived in United States, one a free black man. He bought his wife out of slavery, tried to make a go of it in the United States. But due to prejudice and other threats of violence, they ultimately fled to Canada where Abbott was born. When the war started, he had just graduated from the University of Toronto with a medical degree. So he comes to Washington...
NNAMDIYeah, in the picture of him, he is wearing his graduation robes.
CODDINGTONYeah. I selected that image in particular. It's a very -- it's a great photograph of him. And in Washington, he makes friends with Elizabeth Keckley through a mutual friend and through that relationship gets to know President Lincoln. And on the night that Lincoln was shot, Mary Todd Lincoln apparently calls out for Elizabeth Keckley.
CODDINGTONAnd, according to my research, at least three messengers were sent out across Washington to try and find her. One of those messengers landed on the doorstep of Anderson Ruffin Abbott about two o'clock in the morning. Apparently someone had got the idea that by finding him, they might find her.
CODDINGTONAnd so Anderson Ruffin Abbott goes out, and they're riding through the night to try to find out what's going on. He, of course, learns -- has learned of what has happened. Unable to find her, go back to sleep, he wakes up the next morning to bells tolling the death of the president, who is his friend, and eventually he is offered and accepts a shawl that President Lincoln used to wear as a token of their friendship.
NNAMDIAnd you mentioned earlier that 200,000 African-Americans fought in the Civil War. You also mentioned in this book that fully one-fifth of that number, 40,000 came from Canada, African-Americans.
CODDINGTONYeah. I think the actual number -- the 30,000 number, I think that also includes white soldiers there. So I have to check my numbers on that. So -- but a significant number came from Canada.
NNAMDIAnother soldier who caught Lincoln's attention, Martin Delany. And I understand his audience with the president led to his position in the Army, but that was really just one chapter in a very, very life of Martin Delany.
CODDINGTONYes. An incredible, incredible man. He -- my favorite story about him and the one that I begin his profile with is how after the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," he decides to write his own version. So his protagonist is Henry Blake, the strong-willed West Indian man, quite the opposite of Uncle Tom. And I won't give away the story, but it's a worthy read.
CODDINGTONHe has trouble getting it published. It doesn't appear until 1861. And at that point, it's in serial form, and the war has pretty much surpassed everything else. But it's a great story. And his image is one of my favorites. He is standing straight on. He's holding his sword in one hand with the blade touching the floor, leaning slightly forward as if he means it, and he is ready for action.
NNAMDIMartin Delany would have been considered a militant even in those days, would he not?
NNAMDIWithout a doubt. On now to Veda in Reston, Va. because this relates, I guess, to what we were talking about, about Martin Delany. Veda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VEDAThank you, Kojo. I was calling actually just about what happened to veterans after the war and if there -- if the author was able to uncover any evidence of them maybe traveling through other countries, other continents, specifically Liberia or to Africa, because if you look at the census numbers for Liberia, there is an uptake in immigration immediately following the American Civil War.
NNAMDIDelany might have been one of the reasons for that.
CODDINGTONYes. He was -- Martin Delany was definitely, before the war and after the war, a proponent for colonization. I certainly found evidence through their pension files of movement of the veterans after the war. In many cases, they did like their white counterparts did, is they went home. They went to what they knew which was the farm or the city in which they grew up. They stayed there for a few years, and then they typically moved on to some other place.
NNAMDIHow difficult was that transition? The war comes to an end. These men have fought successfully for their freedom. That did not necessarily mean the same thing for all of them. How did they navigate the transition that came after the Civil War?
CODDINGTONSome had a very difficult time doing so, and you won't be surprised to know that several of the men in the book go on to become buffalo soldiers. They find life in the Army to be a home for them, and they return to it.
CODDINGTONAnd later in the 1860s when the Army is beefed up a bit more and provisions are made for African-American regiments, others suffer from -- although not diagnosed as a post-traumatic stress, you can certainly see evidence of it in the pension files or at least anecdotal evidence that suggests that they had trouble, again, much like their white counterparts, making the adjustment after the war.
NNAMDIAnd finally, here is Victoria in Manassas, Va. Victoria, you only have about a minute. But go ahead, please.
VICTORIAGood afternoon. And thank you for taking my call, and thank you for the show. My great-grandfather, who was my grandmother's dad, was born and raised in Rising Sun, Ky. He escaped from slavery, and he joined the Union Army. He fought here in Virginia, was wounded here in Virginia. He returned to Indiana after the war. He fought under the name of James Marshall. His name was James Rile. (sp?) He...
NNAMDIYou got about 20 seconds.
VICTORIAHe had difficulty finding his benefits after the war because of the double name. He passed away at the age of 104, and he was a fiddler. My mother knew him, but he passed when she was 7 years old.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story with us, Victoria. And I'm afraid that's all the time we have. There are a lot of stories in the book by Ronald Coddington. It's called "African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album." Ron Coddington is also an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Thank you so much for joining us.
CODDINGTONKojo, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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