Lesson of the Day: ‘A Call to Remember the 200,000 Black Troops Who Helped Save the Union’

Featured Article: “A Call to Remember the 200,000 Black Troops Who Helped Save the Union” by Christine Hauser

Black troops played a significant role during the Civil War, but historians say their contribution has not been adequately honored. In February, two legislators introduced a bill to correct that by awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to about 200,000 Black troops and naval men who fought for the Union.

In this article, you will learn about the contributions of Black soldiers and the discrimination they faced. Then we invite you to closely examine portraits of some of these soldiers and consider the significance of honoring them through this bill.

The featured article includes a letter written by Samuel Cabble, a formerly enslaved Black man who had recently enlisted in the Union Army. Spend five minutes looking at the original source below.

  • First, just look: What do you notice about the document?

  • Then, look a little closer: Are you able to identify any words, dates or names? Can you read any sentences or paragraphs?

  • What do you think this letter is communicating? What questions do you have about it

Now, read the full transcript of the letter, which preserves the original spelling and punctuation of the writer:

Dear Wife i have enlisted in the army i am now in the state of Massachusetts but before this letter reaches you i will be in North Carolina and though great is the present national difficulties yet i look forward to a brighter day when i shall have the opportunity of seeing you in the full enjoyment of freedom i would like to no if you are still in slavery if you are it will not be long before we shall have crushed the state in that now subjugates you for in the course of three months you shall have your liberty. great is the outpouring of the colored peopl that is now rallying with the hearts of lions against that very curse that has separated you an me. yet we shall meet again and oh what a happy time that will be when this ungodly rebellion shall be put down and the curses of our land is trampled under our feet i am a soldier now and i shall my upmost endeavors to strike at the rebellion and the heart of this system that so long has kept us in chains. Write to me just as soon as you get this letter tell me if you are still living in the cabin where you use to live. tell eliza i send her my best respects and lane ike an [sic] sally likewise i would send you some money but i now it is impossible for you to git it i would like to see little jenkins now but i no it is impossible at present so no more but remain your own affectionate husband until death

Samuel Cabble

  • Now that you have read the full document, summarize it in your own words.

  • What is your reaction to the letter? How do you feel reading it?

  • What more do you want to know about Black soldiers who served during the Civil War?

Read the articlethen answer the following questions:

1. What is the bill being brought forward by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia? Why are they taking that action?

2. Who was opposed to the founding of the United States Colored Troops? What finally allowed Black people to serve in the Union forces and Navy?

3. How does William H. Carney’s story illustrate some of the struggles, and heroism, of Black soldiers during the Civil War? How were his contributions acknowledged?

4. What did discrimination black soldiers face in terms of pay, training, equipment and opportunities for promotion? How did discrimination continue to affect Black veterans after the war?

5. In what ways were Black women integral to the war effort?

6. What connection did Frederick Douglass see between emancipation, citizenship and serving in the military?

7. What is your reaction to the featured article? What did you learn? In what ways has it shifted or deepened your understanding of the Civil War and the role of Black soldiers in it?

Look at this collection of images from the featured article and respond to the following questions:

  • What do you notice in these portraits? What do you wonder about them?

  • What messages or ideas are communicated through the images? How do they compare to other depictions of Black people during the Civil War era that you may have seen?

  • How do these portraits connect to the ideas explored in the article?

Portraits — whether tintypes, daguerreotypes or cartes de visites — were one way that Black people could have agency over how white people saw them. Sojourner Truth, a noted Black abolitionist, sat for many such photographs throughout her life. As Teju Cole wrote for The Times, “Truth knew how powerful a photographic presence could be in the struggle to make white Americans see Black American humanity.”

  • In what ways does Mr. Cole’s quotation support your observations of the portraits?

  • What choices made by the subject and the photographer emphasize Black American humanity?

  • How do these images and the quotation from Mr. Cole connect to the bill being put forward to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Black troops who served the Union?

If you want to learn more about African American portraiture in the 19th century, check out the online gallery “Visualizing Black Agency in Cartes de Visite Audio Guide” from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, or the Library of Congress’s Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, which features Civil War cartes de visites.

Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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