Thursday, August 1, 2013

Zooming in on USCTs Learning


When African American slaves left their owners and joined the Union army they not only found the opportunity to labor and fight for their freedom, they also sometimes found chances to gain a rudimentary education.

During the antebellum years the majority of slave states made it illegal for slaves to learn to read and write. Being long denied an education only made some new black soldiers all that more thirsty for knowledge. In many recruiting, enlistment, and training camps organizations, both civil and religious organizations, such as freedmen's aid societies and the American Missionary Association sent teachers to work with soldiers and their refugee families.


This cropped image, possibly taken on the South Carolina coast, shows a group of 6 of the 18 African American soldiers sitting with uniforms on and books in hand. It must have opened up a whole new world to those that had previously only learned through hearing and observing. Two men, the one of the far left and the second from the right appear to be wearing a cravats.


In this view two white men, who appear to be officers and two white women, who are likely teachers, appear behind the middle group of six soldiers. Like those to the left, most have books in their hands. The majority of the soldiers wear four-button fatigue blouses, while the man second from the right has a nine button frock coat and the man on the far right has his blouse open showing a multi-button vest. Hair styles vary from close cropped to long.


The final grouping, too, show the men with reading material. A white man, who appears to be a civilian, stands behind the soldier on the far left. One soldier, the second from the right, appears to be mixed race as he has a lighter complexion and seems to have straighter hair than his comrades.

Abolitionist John G. Fee, an employee of the American Missionary Association and who had ministered in Kentucky before the Civil War but had been exiled after John Brown's raid, wrote the following after observing the soldiers at Camp Nelson and their thirst for knowledge:

"Here are thousands of noble men, made in the image of God, just emerging from the restraints of slavery in the liberties and responsibilities of free men, and of soldiers.  I find them manifesting an almost universal desire to learn; and [in] that they do make rapid progress . . . . When we consider that this people have great physical strength, are manifestly capable of rapid intellectual development, that they are humble, grateful, trusting, religiously inclined – that they are destined to occupy an important place in the army and agriculture of this nation, I feel that it is blessed to labor with such a people.  The Lord help"

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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