“Among the black soldiers”

--Walt Whitman, Specimen days, 1882


Photograph of a Grand Army of the Republic reunion, Norfolk, Va., ca. 1910.
(MSS 11436)

This photograph of African-American military veterans during a Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.) reunion was taken in Norfolk’s Elmwood Cemetery by Harry C. Mann. Most of the 41 individuals pictured served in black Union regiments; some of the veterans are dressed in G. A. R. uniforms. During the 1880s and 1890s, thousands of black veterans joined the G. A. R., the largest Union veterans' organization. G. A. R. posts usually were segregated, especially in the South. Several African-American veterans achieved high ranking within the organization, including Joseph T. Wilson, author of The Black Phalanx, who served as aide-de-camp to the GAR's commander-in-chief.

Joseph T. Wilson, The Black Phalanx: a history of the Negro soldiers of the United States in the wars of 1775-1812, 1861-'65. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1888.
(E185.63 .W8 1888)

Fellow U.S. Colored Troops veterans asked Wilson, a former slave from Norfolk, Va., to prepare a record of their service. Wilson, who served in the Louisiana Native Guard Volunteers and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, wrote a comprehensive history of African-American participation in America’s wars.

Wilson includes details of the U.S. Colored Troops’ contributions in Virginia battles. In addition to documenting military events, Wilson discusses public opinion toward the Colored Troops and shares anecdotes compiled from fellow veterans, such as the incident illustrated here:

General Ulysses S. Grant, while smoking a cigar, attempted to pass an ammunition wharf at City Point, Va., when a black sentry touched his arm, saying, “No smoking on the dock, sir.” “Are those your orders?” asked Grant. “Yes sir,” replied the guard, respectfully but authoritatively. “Very good orders,” replied Grant, throwing his cigar into the water.