Daguerreotype of Unknown Black Civil War Soldier, National Museum of African American History and Culture
Among a group of 19th-century daguerreotypes that recently came to the National Museum of African American History and Culture is one of an unknown soldier. “What I like about those 19th-century images is that the person is looking directly into the camera, and almost as if they were standing in front of you. The detail is so rich,” says collections specialist Michele Gates-Moresi. “It kind of brings the history alive in a way that other things just don’t.”
This image, which shows a black man from the waist up, dressed in a button-down cap and holding a rifle against his left shoulder, is undoubtedly of a Union soldier. An estimated 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army—10 percent of its total soldiers and 13 percent of the black population. “We know that so many of those soldiers were very young, quite ordinary, probably farmers, possibly illiterate, but we don’t know anything about him,” says Gates-Moresi.
History does tell us that blacks had to fight just for the right to participate in the war. Blacks attempting to enlist were rebuffed at every turn, prompting antislavery orator Frederick Douglass to petition President Lincoln to allow blacks to fight. Additional political pressures, mounting Union casualties and the realities of war eventually helped change Lincoln’s policy, but it wasn’t until Congress passed the Militia Act in 1862 that free blacks and ex-slaves were allowed to take up arms.
Black soldiers, who fought in segregated regiments, were not paid as much as white soldiers and were, for a time, prohibited from becoming officers. The most famous of these units was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, led by Col. Robert Shaw, and immortalized in the 1989 film Glory.
And then there are the stories that we don’t know. These photographs seek to give a face to the experience of the black soldiers who served in the Civil War, whose stories, while unknown, are just as important. “If we’re only telling the story about people whose stories we know about,” says Gates-Moresi, “then we’re doing a disservice to the experience of most people.”
by Arcynta Ali Childs