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African-American Faces Of The Civil War

The impulses to collect and to doodle have always been in Ron Coddington's blood. As a kid, it was baseball cards. As a teen, he took an interest in old flea market photos — and simultaneously became "obsessed," he says, "with learning to draw the human face."

That explains a lot. Coddington kicked off a career in journalism as an illustrator doing caricatures — eventually growing into the position of art director at USA Today. These days, he's the head of the data visualization and multimedia team at The Chronicle of Higher Education. And he's still collecting.

"I don't know what my problem is," he says with a laugh on the phone. "When I went to college, I didn't have a lot of belongings, but the one thing I brought in the front seat with me was a cigar box with my collection in it."

These photos are called cartes de visite: little portrait cards that were easily reproduced and therefore immensely popular for decades — especially during the Civil War. And Coddington's obsessive collecting has yielded three books so far: Faces of the Civil War, Confederates of the Civil War and, most recently, African American Faces of the Civil War.

Finding these images is a major investigative undertaking. Because for Coddington, finding the photo isn't enough.

"It's more than just a face," he says.

The story is what's important — and those details are incredibly rare. So what makes Coddington's collection special are the biographical details that accompany the images. If you take the time to read their stories, the individuals spring to life — well after they've died.

The Picture Show asked Coddington to choose 10 highlights from his most recent book. But you can really dig into the rest of the collection on this website.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

After an initially frustrating search for identifiable Civil War portraits, Coddington finally came across this image of William Wright of the 114th U.S. Colored Infantry. That find inspired his continued hunt for similar images.
/ Courtesy of Ron Coddington
After an initially frustrating search for identifiable Civil War portraits, Coddington finally came across this image of William Wright of the 114th U.S. Colored Infantry. That find inspired his continued hunt for similar images.
Corp. Wilson Weir was a slave when he joined the Union army at age 21. "My initial attraction to old photos was purely aesthetic, and this still continues to be the dominant motivating factor," writes Coddington. "This <em>carte de visite</em> meets and exceeds my criteria. ... He wears his hat at a jaunty angle, perhaps reflective of his character."
/ Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Corp. Wilson Weir was a slave when he joined the Union army at age 21. "My initial attraction to old photos was purely aesthetic, and this still continues to be the dominant motivating factor," writes Coddington. "This <em>carte de visite</em> meets and exceeds my criteria. ... He wears his hat at a jaunty angle, perhaps reflective of his character."
Jeremiah Saunders was born into slavery, but when his master died, he joined the Union army and was eventually promoted to corporal.
/ Collection of Paul Rusinoff
Jeremiah Saunders was born into slavery, but when his master died, he joined the Union army and was eventually promoted to corporal.
John and Isaiah Owens. "An absolutely wonderful cased tintype of two brothers who served in the same company in the 60th U.S. Colored Infantry," writes Coddington. "The story of the Owens brothers is poignant. Both died during the war. Isaiah succumbed of disease, and John fell from a transport and drowned in the Mississippi River."
/ Collection of Tim Kernan
John and Isaiah Owens. "An absolutely wonderful cased tintype of two brothers who served in the same company in the 60th U.S. Colored Infantry," writes Coddington. "The story of the Owens brothers is poignant. Both died during the war. Isaiah succumbed of disease, and John fell from a transport and drowned in the Mississippi River."
Sgt. Alexander Herritage Newton (left) and Sgt. Daniel S. Lathrop. "After obtaining permission to publish [this]," writes Coddington, "I discovered Newton's autobiography, <em>Out of the Briars.</em> This honest and able account of his life experiences is one of the best personal Civil War narratives that I have read."
/ Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Sgt. Alexander Herritage Newton (left) and Sgt. Daniel S. Lathrop. "After obtaining permission to publish [this]," writes Coddington, "I discovered Newton's autobiography, <em>Out of the Briars.</em> This honest and able account of his life experiences is one of the best personal Civil War narratives that I have read."
Sgt. George Mitchell's company (Company K of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry) was, according to Coddington's research, the last to fire arms in the Civil War.
/ Collection of the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum
Sgt. George Mitchell's company (Company K of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry) was, according to Coddington's research, the last to fire arms in the Civil War.
1st Sgt. Octavius McFarland was a slave from Missouri. "My favorite photograph in the book, and it graces the jacket," writes Coddington. "McFarland stares away from the camera with quiet confidence and dignity, proudly wearing his Union uniform with the chevrons of a first sergeant."
/ Collection of the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum
1st Sgt. Octavius McFarland was a slave from Missouri. "My favorite photograph in the book, and it graces the jacket," writes Coddington. "McFarland stares away from the camera with quiet confidence and dignity, proudly wearing his Union uniform with the chevrons of a first sergeant."
Corp. Henry Gaither. "One of the few free men of color in this book when the war began, Gaither and his regiment, the 39th U.S. Colored Infantry, fought as hard as any white organization in the Union army," writes Coddington. "This is one of my favorite images in the book."
/ Collection of the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum
Corp. Henry Gaither. "One of the few free men of color in this book when the war began, Gaither and his regiment, the 39th U.S. Colored Infantry, fought as hard as any white organization in the Union army," writes Coddington. "This is one of my favorite images in the book."
Sgt. Kendrick Allen was born a slave in Anderson County, Ky., and joined the Army at age 19, enlisting in the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry.
/ Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Sgt. Kendrick Allen was born a slave in Anderson County, Ky., and joined the Army at age 19, enlisting in the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry.
George William Commodore was born free and raised in Baltimore. At about age 39, he joined the Navy. "He must have taken some ribbing," Coddington writes in his book, "his surname being the same as a high naval rank."
/ Collection of National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
George William Commodore was born free and raised in Baltimore. At about age 39, he joined the Navy. "He must have taken some ribbing," Coddington writes in his book, "his surname being the same as a high naval rank."