About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for "The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship"

Greetings from the National Archives. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s virtual book talk with Deborah Willis, author of The Black Civil War Soldier.

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

On Friday, January 29, at noon, Benjamin R. Justesen will discuss his book Forgotten Legacy. Historians have long overlooked President William McKinley’s cooperation with prominent African American leaders, including George Henry White, the nation’s only black congressman between 1897 and 1901. Because of McKinley’s dedication to the advancement of African Americans and the safeguarding of their rights as U.S. citizens, he might be considered the first “civil rights President.”

And on Thursday, February 4, at 1 p.m., Alice Baumgartner will tell us about her new book, South to Freedom.  In the years before the Civil War, thousands of people in the south-central United States escaped slavery not by heading north, but by crossing the southern border into Mexico. South to Freedom gives us a new perspective on antebellum America and the causes of the Civil War.

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The Civil War was the first large and prolonged conflict to be extensively recorded in photographs. This visual record gives us a sense of immediacy that we don’t have with paintings and prints from the Revolutionary War or other earlier conflicts. We can identify individual faces, and we can imagine ourselves on the actual battlefields in the aftermath of the fighting.

Thousands of those images are now in the National Archives, but photos of Black soldiers are rare.

In her book The Black Civil War Soldier, Deborah Willis shows us the faces of  a number of the Black soldiers who took up arms to fight for their freedom. Using photographs and the written record, she examines not only the individual stories of the soldiers but also the importance of African American communities during and after the war.

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Deborah Willis is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and has an affiliated appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, and Africana Studies. Willis is the author of Envisioning Emancipation and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs—both of which received NAACP Image Awards—as well as Posing Beauty.

Now let’s hear from Deborah Willis. Thank you for joining us today.