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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Emancipation

Two unidentified African American soldiers, between 1860-1870
"Two brothers in arms"
Civil War II: Soldiers

- Slaves in blue and grey, selections from the WPA narratives, 1930s (PDF)
- Union sergeant, letter of Lewis Douglass, 1863
- Wounded Union private, letters of Spotswood Rice, 1864
- Mother of a Union soldier letter to President Lincoln, 1863
- Teenaged Confederate aide, narrative of Jacob Stroyer, 1898, Ch. 3 (PDF)
- Portrait photographs 1861-1865

In Theme IV: IDENTITY, we considered how military service in the American Revolution and the Civil War affected African American identity, i.e., black men's sense of themselves within white society, while fighting wars for freedom. In this section we shift our view to the collective experience of African American soldiers and their families in the Civil War—soldiers in battle, parents separated from children, slaves sent to labor with Confederate units, and servicemen having their portraits taken in uniform.
  • Slaves in blue and grey. From the interviews with former slaves compiled by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s come these eight selections from African Americans who served as soldiers or military laborers in the Civil War—four with the Union army, four with the Confederate army, and one man, Bill Simms, who served with both sides. As was true for most slaves in the Confederate army, Simms was sent by his slaveholder to fulfill a quota. As soon as the Union army was close, however, Simms escaped and volunteered with the Yankees until the war ended, when he returned to his former slaveholder's home and worked for him, for wages.

  • Union sergeant. Lewis Douglass, a son of Frederick Douglass, served as a sergeant in the U.S. 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, a black regiment with a white commander that led a failed but praised assault on a South Carolina fort in 1863. Writing to his wife, Douglass describes the battle that killed the commander and 250 other men. From later evaluations of the battle, Douglass's statement that "our men fought well" is an understatement.

  • Wounded Union private. Spotswood Rice, wounded while fighting in the U.S. army, wrote to his children while hospitalized in St. Louis. He lays out his plans to liberate them from his former mistress, predicting that she will strongly resist. But "god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood," and his firm resolve is apparent in this letter and the letter he wrote the same day to the mistress holding his children.

  • Mother of a Union soldier. Hannah Johnston, the mother of another black soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry (see Lewis Douglass, above), wrote to Abraham Lincoln in 1863 requesting, actually insisting, that he protect African American soldiers. Not from the danger of battle, but from the risk of being kidnapped and forcibly returned to their masters. She states her position bluntly: "I have but poor edication but I never went to school, but I know just as well as any what is right between man and man." Do not miss the final note at the end, in another handwriting and signature.

  • Teenaged Confederate aide. At age 13 and 14, Jacob Stroyer was sent from his South Carolina plantation to the fortified islands of Charleston harbor to serve the Confederate army as a messenger and laborer. Only in the fourth edition of his autobiography, published in 1898, did he include a chapter on this Civil War experiences. (Stroyer's description of his life on Kensington plantation is excerpted in Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT, Section #1.)

  • Portrait photographs. Developed in 1856 after the daguerreotype process, tintype and ambrotype photography provided fast, mobile, and cheap means of producing almost-instant portraits, many of them taken by travelling camp photographers. The portraits of these six unidentified African American servicemen found their way into a collection purchased by the Library of Congress. How did the men choose to pose? What did they choose to hold?
Combine these war documents and photographs with those in other sections of this Toolbox, especially IDENTITY: Soldiers and EMANCIPATION: Civil War I: Slaves. (27 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. From these readings and photographs, what impressions do you have of African Americans' military experience in the Civil War?
  2. What impressions surprised you? Why?
  3. Compare the experiences of African Americans in the Union and Confederate armies. What factors most differentiate them?
  4. What issues did black soldiers face that white soldiers did not?
  5. In each reading or photograph, what is the context of the writer's letter, narrative, or sitting (for a photograph)? Who is the receiver or audience?
  6. What is the immediate need or goal for each document or photograph?
  7. How do these factors—context, audience, and goal—differentiate the documents and photographs?
  8. What can you learn from analyzing primary sources in this way?
Use the documents and photographs in this section, and in IDENTITY #5: Soldiers, to address these questions.
  1. How does experience in war—as a soldier, parent, or civilian—affect an individual's definition and judgment of himself or herself? What becomes important in the aftermath of war?
  2. How does experience in war affect a group's definition and judgment of itself—in this case, African Americans? How did the Civil War experiences of black men and women influence their self-concept as Americans? as African Americans?

Framing Questions
  • How did enslaved African Americans construct communities over time? What were their principal characteristics?
  •  What obstacles did slaves confront in constructing communities?
  •  How did white Americans respond to the collective behavior of African Americans?
  •  How was autonomy exercised through community by antebellum African Americans?

Slaves in blue and grey:   6 WPA narratives
Union sergeant:   1 Lewis Douglass
Wounded Union private:   3 Spotswood Rice
Mother of a Union soldier:   2 Hannah Johnston
Teenaged Confederate aide: 10 Jacob Stroyer
Portrait photographs:   5 Unidentified black soldiers and sailor
TOTAL 27   

Supplemental Sites

Jacob Stroyer, My Life in the South, narrative Library of Congress National Archives National Park Service WPA Slave Narratives, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

Image: Photograph (tintype) captioned "Two brothers in arms," between 1860 and 1870. LOC note: "Two unidentified African American soldiers, full-length portrait, wearing uniforms, seated with arms around each other's shoulders, facing front." Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Gladstone Collection.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Buying Freedom   2. Death as Freedom   3. Abolition
4. Liberia   5. Civil War I: Slaves   6. Civil War II: Soldiers
7. Emancipation, 1864-1865   8. The Institution

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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