A Rare Photograph of USCT’s, and a Case of Conflicting Identification

From:  Harrison 

Note:  for the sequel, or counterpoint, to the pre-Overland Campaign dating of this photograph in one prominent collection, see the comment below by our sharp-eyed reader, Will Hickox, pointing out the post-Overland Campaign identification in another.

On Saturday February 25th, please join park Chief Historian John Hennessy for Bridging the Chasm: A Public Conversation about Freedom, the Civil War, and its Complicated Legacy, a keynote program in the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum’s programming for Black History Month.  See the museum’s website for details and directions.      

I’d also like to mark Black History Month by sharing some thoughts on a unique image.  Recently, I came across this photograph in the digitized collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University: 

Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The image, part of the Library’s Mathew B. Brady and Levin Corbin Handy Photographic Studios Collection, bears the penciled caption “near Brandy Station Va 1864 staff 39th Colored Infantry.”  (The photograph appears here in accordance with the Beinecke Library’s policy on noncommercial use of public domain materials.  Additional information about the image accompanies its online version.)

Assuming the accuracy of the caption, this is likely the earliest-known photograph of United States Colored Troops (USCT’s) in the field in northern Virginia—part of the forces that Ulysses S. Grant had concentrated there against Robert E. Lee’s in the spring of 1864.

Detail from photograph above, courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

In a perfect historical world, of course, enlisted men would be present in the foreground as well as the background of the photograph.  Yet I’m very grateful for this rare picture; to my knowledge, it’s also the only known outdoor Virginia photograph that shows, at any date prior to the onset of the Overland Campaign, personnel of any of the six full USCT infantry regiments (plus a detachment from a Connecticut “colored” infantry regiment) who would march across the Fredericksburg area battlefields with Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division of the Ninth Army Corps.
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