|This image captures two faces of white America’s relationship to race. |
Literally on the face, the front, of the image the writer has given the photograph his own caption: “All men are created equal.” This seems to be an expression of America’s highest ideals of equality and justice: even these to young men ― forced to live in slavery, reduced to wearing rags ― deserve to share in the equality owed by right to “all men.” The expression seem to validate the Union cause in the Civil War as a fight for those ideals: to uphold universal equality and to end the injustice of slavery.
And yet, on the hidden face of the image, its back, its underside, the writer seems to speak his mind more freely. He call the escaped slaves “niggers” and seems to despise them for their condition, almost as if he were contaminated by how many of them (“thousands”) were flooding the area of Union army control.
Still, despite the evident contempt, there is perhaps a ray of hope. Many whites resisted giving black men the right to fight in the war. To allow them to fight as soldiers would be to grant them an equal status to the white men as men who were up to the responsibility of facing death to preserve their liberty. Despite the coarse, even crude language this writer uses, and despite his willingness to see African Americans put in harm’s way, at least he accepts that they should have the opportunity to fight, to exchange the rags for a soldier’s uniform, and thereby to share in a common cause. Perhaps without fully realizing it, he was accepting the position of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass that African Americans must be given the opportunity to prove themselves ready to face death to live free and to fight for the freedom of others.
For a discussion of African American soldiers in the Civil War, see Erina Duganne’s essay on this site, “Black Civil War Portraiture in Context.” For portraits of black men who did get that chance to serve as soldiers in the Civil War, see this one of an anonymous private in the famed 54th Massachusetts and this one of James Trotter, a former slave who rose to officer rank and went went on to become a civil servant and author.