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  • Roundtable Discussion on Deborah Willis’s The Black Civil War SoldierThe Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship
  • Jim Downs, Moderator (bio),
    Participants: David W. Blight, Cheryl Finley, Matthew Fox-Amato, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, Nell Painter, Ann M. Shumard, and Deborah Willis

DAVID BLIGHT: Welcome everybody. I’m David Blight. I’m the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition at Yale University. We’re helping host this extraordinary event today on Black soldiers in Civil War photography. The panel, which I will introduce in a moment, is a star-studded and I should say a large panel, whose members I will introduce in a moment. This is built around the work of Deborah Willis and particularly her book, which I will show here—this book, just out last year, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship.1

This is also sponsored by the two new editors of the Civil War History journal, Jim Downs and Crystal Feimster. Jim is editor, Crystal, associate editor, having just taken over the journal a year or so ago. I must say that I go back with that journal further than I’d care to even admit. When I came into this profession in graduate school, that was a very important journal in my field. Everybody wanted to get published in it, do a book review in it, and so on. It had already been around then, I think, for a decade or two, so it’s a venerable old journal and it, over the years, has published some extremely important articles in this field, and not all about military history, I must say.

But under the new editorship, it is reaching out to an ever wider interdisciplinary kind of scholarship on the Civil War era. It is often said, virtually all of [End Page 397] us in this field now say, that the American Civil War period is a kind of second American Revolution. It was, and arguably one of its most, if not the most, revolutionary aspects were those Black Civil War soldiers, Black men, around 80 percent of them before the war was over, who were former slaves, with blue uniforms and muskets on their shoulders and cartridge boxes on their belts, who went to war for their own freedom, the freedom of their families, their people, and for the reinvention and transformation of the United States.

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Roundtable participants, beginning in upper left corner: row 1 (left to right): Matthew Fox-Amato, Jim Downs, and Deborah Willis; row 2 (left to right): Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, GLC staff, and Cheryl Finley; row 3 (left to right): Ann M. Shumard, Nell Painter, and David Blight; row 4 (left to right): Daniel Vieria and Crystal Feimster.

It’s an extraordinary story, of course, and it has been documented over time by another revolution—and that’s the revolution of photography, and we’ve got a group of scholars of photography and art, and art history and of history, gathered here to discuss Deborah Willis’s book, but also this phenomenon of the Black Civil War soldier and the photographs of that era. Let me get right at it as quick as I can do these introductions. This is an extraordinary group of people. I could talk all day about them, but I won’t. Promise.

First is Deborah Willis, around whose book we built this. She’s a University Professor of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She’s been a MacArthur Fellow, received all kinds of other fellowships over time. She’s the author of this book, The Black Civil War Soldier, and also the book Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, and a host of other written works and exhibitions she has curated over time. Deborah, thank you for submitting your book to this collective review.2 [End Page 398]

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Then Jim Downs, who put this panel together with his colleague, Crystal Feimster. Jim is currently the Gilder Lehrman–NEH Professor of Civil War...