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.
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:
- Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, 1921-1940 (111-B)
- 19th Century Mathew Brady, Quartermaster, and Other Civil War Photographs, ca. 1875-1941 (165-ABC)
The images from both series have been digitized and are available via NARA’s online catalog with no user or access restrictions.