As a period of bitter political division gives way to a new administration, and a president who has vowed to be a leader for “all Americans,” we seem to have entered a second era of Reconstruction, when the cracks and splits in our Union are carefully being sutured. Still, the Civil War of 160-odd years ago cast a shadow that we can still see today, with the occurrence of Confederate imagery in public spaces begging the question of which historical icons are productive to preserve.
The scholar, author, curator, and photographer Deborah Willis makes a fascinating contribution to that conversation with The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship, 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. As she writes in the preface, The Black Civil War Soldier “examines the public’s memory of the Civil War and how the presence and lack of images of black soldiers influence our modern perceptions of the war in the archive.” While the South has long dominated the narrative around the war with its statues, flags, and films like Gone with the Wind, the picture of what happened over those four destructive years has never quite been complete.
Combining poignant portraits of newly minted soldiers with extensive letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings and other records, The Black Civil War Soldier pays tribute to heroes largely obscured. Here, Vogue speaks to Willis about the volume.
Can you take me back to when the subject of the Black Civil War soldier first grabbed you? Because I suppose it would have dovetailed with some of your work around emancipation?
It started when I was a curator, working at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as well as at the Smithsonian, when collectors and family members who had photographs wanted me to acquire them for both institutions. I was fascinated because we rarely see images of soldiering, basically, with the backdrop of portraits. But going further back, I grew up in Philadelphia, and we used to go to Gettysburg as children with my parents, but when I attended school, rarely was there a discussion about Black Civil War soldiers. So that combination of growing up, working as a curator, being involved with collectors, and looking at family albums—stories started to develop that really piqued my interest. [I later] did a book called Reflections in Black, and I found Black photographers who photographed Civil War soldiers; and then the book Envisioning Emancipation that I co-published with Barbara Krauthamer moved me forward to say that this is a story that needs to be told, expanded upon, shared—and that’s what kept me interested. I’ve always been fascinated with the image, as you can imagine.