While for Southern slaves the Civil War represented an escape from bondage, for northern free blacks, the war was an opportunity to assert their full equality with whites while joining in a valorous undertaking. Although initially blacks were excluded from the organization of the Union military, in time black companies were formed, and blacks from northern states became eligible to enlist as soldiers in the Union cause. All told, about 200,000 free and formerly enslaved blacks served in the army and navy on the Union side. The opportunity to bear arms came only in 1863. The most famous of the fighting regiments, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was immortalized in the 1998 film Glory.
Prior to 1863, however, blacks could join Union regiments as laborers, though at a rate of pay lower than that of white volunteers. The beautiful photograph above shows one such unit, the 15th Regiment of New York Engineers. Originally an infantry unit, the 15th was re-designated in 1862, as the army’s need for logistical support accelerated. The integrated corps of workers under the command of Daniel Woodbury was tasked with constructing makeshift pontoon bridges and defensive fortifications as Union troops moved into rebel territory. The regiment participated in the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in April 1862, before hurriedly building this bridge over the Chickahominy River to facilitate the Union’s pursuit of the Confederate forces in May.
This photograph, taken to commemorate the completion of the bridge, registers the spirit of black and white Americans who came together in the name of the Union cause. Their contributions to the liberation and transformation of the South constitutes a bright legacy, preserved in this artifact we behold today. It’s a precious vestige of personal history, as few other likenesses of these brave Union men can have been made, and fewer survive.
Image: from this source.
(The image file is large and very clear; expand the image to see individual details.)