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Back Story: Images of black Civil War soldiers

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Ronald S. Coddington, an author and editor, has spent nearly four decades collecting Civil War-era images — especially cartes de visite, his favorite.

Out of a collection of 2,500 images he has assembled, 1,500 are cartes de visite, with the remainder being daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes.

In 2004, his first collection of images resulted in "Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories" published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

The format he used, in which he was able to research and write a thumbnail biography of each person, was so successful he did a second volume, "Faces of the Confederacy: An Album of Southern Soldiers and Their Stories," published in 2008.

You might say Coddington, 50, a 1985 graduate of the University of Georgia and a former newspaperman who is now assistant manager of the Chronicle of Higher Education, was almost shamed into bringing out a third book, "African American Faces of the Civil War," published by Hopkins last year.

As Coddington related in a talk at the Johns Hopkins Club the other day, he was appearing at the Baltimore Book Fair when a woman came in, picked up his first book and flipped through its pages.

"I thought she was going to buy it. She looked at me and said, 'You know African-American soldiers fought in the Civil War,' and then put it down and left," he said.

That unknown woman planted a seed in the neophyte author standing in a book fair tent, and his latest book is the fruit of that seed.

Some 200,000 African-Americans enlisted in the Union army or navy — some of them were free while others were runaway slaves. They served as soldiers, servants or laborers.

Not only did Coddington, who lives in Arlington, Va., draw on his own collection, he turned to other collectors, historical societies and libraries such as the Beinecke Library at Yale University, which had images of the 108th Infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops in its collection, for instance.

He selected only images of men who were identified by name, which allowed him to go to the National Archives and the Library of Congress, where he was able to go through pension records, revealing a great deal of biographical information on the individuals.

Naturally, of the 77 whom Coddington includes in the book, some have Baltimore or Maryland roots.

One is William Dominick Matthews, who was born on the Eastern Shore to an African father and a mother of mixed race.

In 1854, he purchased a boat and worked as a commercial fisherman in Maryland until "he ran up against discriminatory laws that prohibited him from making a living," writes Coddington.

After selling his boat, he moved in 1856 to what was then the Kansas Territory, which was engulfed in the fight that would determine whether it came into the U.S. as a free or slave state.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Matthews raised his own company of black troops. When the company was mustered into the Union army in 1863, it was without him because he had been denied its captaincy.

Deeply disappointed and frustrated, he returned to Leavenworth, Kan., writes Coddington, where he worked as a policeman and an army recruiter.

He then raised men for the Independent Battery, U.S. Colored Light Artillery in 1864. By the time Matthews was mustered in, attitudes toward black officers had changed, and he was given the rank of first lieutenant.

"You have been a model of proper discipline and subordination, strictly attentive to duty, promptly obedient to orders, and acting with a wise discretion in all matters requiring the exercise of your individual judgment," a superior officer wrote in praise of Matthews, who was mustered out in October 1865.

Another man featured in Coddington's book, Taylor B. Aldrich, had been born into slavery in Talbot County — the son of a slave mother and a white father — and after the slave owner died, ownership of Aldrich's mother and siblings passed to the owner's daughter.

In 1863, he enlisted in the 19th U.S. Colored Infantry, in which he was a first sergeant. Wounded, Aldrich survived the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va.

After the war, Aldrich moved to Baltimore, and eventually to Philadelphia and later Pittsburgh, where he was a hotel waiter and active in the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic.

He died in 1918.

Coddington's already at work on another book that will feature images from the Union and Confederate navies.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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