The following is a guest post by Jonathan Eaker, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division.
Recently while going through some military photos in our collection I came across a set of twelve undigitized group portraits showing African American soldiers at the time of the Spanish American War. The photos launched me on research about a unit that I hadn’t encountered before. The 9th U.S. Volunteer Infantry was made up of African American volunteers, mostly from New Orleans, Louisiana. A few companies were recruited elsewhere, however; many members of Company I came from Houston, Texas, for instance.
The 9th U.S. Volunteers arrived in Cuba just after the armistice was signed, ending the fighting, but there was still work to do. The soldiers guarded prisoners and relieved soldiers who had succumbed to disease. Company I was nicknamed the “Bandit Chasers” for its efforts to track down law breakers.
I really like the poses of the soldiers in the two photos above. In the Company E photo most, but not all, of the soldiers are shown crossing their arms. In contrast, in the Company I photo individuals seem to go out of their way not to assume similar poses. Instead, one soldier stands in the second row with his fork and knife propped on a plate, a couple of others hold bayonets, some look toward the camera and others look to the side. The thing that surprised me the most was the range in ages of the men. A few of the soldiers look as though they could be still in their teens while others appear to be more than twice their age.
Little is known about the creation of these photos. They were copyrighted by L. Leland Barton, a resident of Washington, D.C. (in fact his home was the building that was formerly Mary Surratt’s boarding house in which Abraham Lincoln’s assassins met nearly 35 years earlier). In newspapers, Barton is usually referred to as a real estate dealer, but he also volunteered for the Navy during the Spanish-American War and received an honorable discharge in the fall of 1899. It’s not clear if Barton took the photographs but they don’t seem to have been taken by a professional photographer. I requested to digitize the two above because they are among the best composed, but many of the other photos in the set are off-center and people are cut off on the sides or top.
Whatever their quality, ultimately the photographs document men who made remarkable sacrifices to serve their country. When you look at these men keep in mind that they all volunteered to leave civilian life for eight months to serve under difficult circumstances. Of the nearly 1,000 men who volunteered, 77 died during their service.
- In addition to the photos I found while looking through an unprocessed collection, I found one additional L. Leland Barton photo of a 9th U.S. Volunteer unit that was copied many years ago (at right). How is the composition similar to those above, and how does it differ?
- Read more about the 9th U.S. Volunteers in The Spanish American War Volunteer by W. Hilary Coston (Middletown, PA, 1899), available via the Internet Archive.
- Well known in the annals of African American military history, Buffalo Soldiers also served during the Spanish American War. They were members of the regular army rather than volunteers. Originally, the term “Buffalo Soldiers” applied to members of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, although the name eventually extended to all of the African American army units that formed in 1866, including the 9th Cavalry and what became the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. Explore images of Buffalo Soldiers.
- Have a look through the photos in the Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, one of our strongest collections for images of African Americans in the military. An earlier blog post offered some highlights from the collection.
- Manuscript materials from the William A. Gladstone Afro-American Military Collection have recently come online. A timeline lays out key events in the history of African American military service.