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African American Soldier: An Iconic Photo from the Civil War

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The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division.

The portrait of this African American family has such a powerful impact that it has become a widely used representation for many aspects of the Civil War era. Donated in 2010 to the Library of Congress, the photograph is already a much admired, iconic treasure.

Photo showing Black man in uniform, woman wearing bonnet beside him, and a girl on either side of the aduults
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with his wife and two daughters. Quarter-plate ambrotype, 1863-1865. Shown without the frame. Liljenquist Family Civil War Photograph Collection.

When historian Drew Gilpin Faust accepted the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity in 2018, she selected this photo to represent the importance of history to transcend time. She said, it is the soldier’s “own declaration of independence, his personal affirmation that all men, that he has been, created equal, that he is fighting for a new birth of freedom.”

Dr. Faust also generalized the experience of this family and recalled the 200,000 African American soldiers who stepped forward to claim full citizenship. “These soldiers staring into the photographer’s lens are self-consciously reaching through history. They are documenting their faces and their uniforms partly because they know they may be killed in the battles ahead. But they also know they are making history in this war, and they want to capture that for us. Attention must be paid they are saying. Don’t forget who we were and what we did. Let us give you the means to see us, to understand us, long after we are gone.”

In concluding her remarks, Dr. Faust observed, “Our present is delivered to us at a price paid by those who came before. History helps us remember our accountability to them, as well as our obligations to more than just ourselves and more than just our own time. It is a way of knowing and valuing that has never mattered more.”

Photo showing Black man in uniform, Black woman wearing bonnet beside him, and two girls on either side of the adults, in ornate brass mat and brown frame
The photograph is in a protective brass mat within a decorative wall frame.

What do you see in this photograph?  Look closely, and the round pin on the soldier’s jacket looks like an Abraham Lincoln campaign button from 1864.

Photo of Abraham Lincoln in circular frame
Abraham Lincoln. Political campaign button for 1864 presidential election. Tintype.

As you continue to look at the image, you might have more questions than definite answers. I certainly do, and that’s part of the appeal in iconic images—they inspire the desire to learn more. The family’s name was not saved with the photo, and I wonder: Where did they live? Who made the matching outfits for the sisters? Is the soldier a veteran of the Civil War or a new recruit? I also respect the confidence, defiance, and concern in their expressions as they face the future together.

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Comments (6)

  1. The little girls dressed match, undoubtedly sewn by hand, wonderful photograph.

  2. Fantastics photo iconics to showing in memory of African Americans Soldiers, that’s what everyone else need to feel, in each spirit about

  3. You get the sense that this is a parting, not a reunion. The trepidation in the wife’s face is clearly visible and rightly so. One out of every five African American Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War never made the journey home.

  4. Those who say we didn’t need to fight the Civil War should look at those girls and try to tell them to wait another generation for freedom. They look so brave and strong.

  5. I believe those beautiful girls are twins. Yes, dressed exactly alike and their faces are seemly identical. One is leaning against her father and the other, upright, next to her mother.
    An amazing photograph. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Thank you for showing the photo! I’ve seen it elsewhere several times. It’s good to know that this photo is highly valued. I am reading a book that shows black Union soldiers from my county who ran away to join the Union army. I have the soldier’s name and I’m going to try to find his relatives. There were others names mentioned and I’m going to try to find their descendants as well. Thank you! I’m a retired law librarian.

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