Unnoticed: African Americans in Union Army Camps during the Civil War

Many of us are familiar with the famed photographer, Mathew Brady, who captured a million photographs during the American Civil War.  From the battlefield to portraits, his photographs captured some of the most grueling and unforgettable times of the war.  They were the inspiration of Ken Burns’ famed documentary series The Civil War (1990).  Many of these photographs have been published in numerous books and articles and featured in many documentaries.  As the images of Union Army camps flash through a book or a TV screen, some of us may not notice an unknown African American standing or sitting with these Union soldiers.

Officers’ winter quarters (NAID 524645, 111-B-226)

7th Infantry NY, (NAID 167248342, 165-A-1874)

Group of 7th New York Infantry (NAID 167250809 165-A-3092)

Infantry camp, 71st N.Y. Inf. at Camp Douglas, 1861, (NAID 524509, 111-B-90)

During the Civil War, millions of enslaved African Americans were escaping plantations in the South trying to reach freedom.  Many of them reached the Union Army lines and were taken in as “contrabands”.  They became laborers or servants for the Union Army and were paid wages for supporting Union forces.

They also set up their own camps near Union lines and were provided education by the Union Army.  Many of them ended up enlisting with the United States Colored Troops in 1863.

Although these images do not identify the African Americans in these camps, they do tell another story about African Americans during the Civil War.

The selected images are part of the following series:

The images from both series have been digitized and are available via NARA’s online catalog with no user or access restrictions.