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Opportunities Lost and Found

In our collective mind’s eye are certain photographic images that have served to define people, places and events for generations. Among the most powerful are those taken during the Civil War, a time coincident with the rapid technological and commercial development of photography. When photographers took to the battlefields, Americans gained gruesome insights into the reality of war, starting with Alexander Gardner’s images taken two days after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Gardner was back at Antietam in October when President Abraham Lincoln visited, and his photos of Lincoln with his generals became enduring icons. Gardner worked for the legendary Mathew Brady, who two years later missed an opportunity to capture a scene that could have had profound impact at the time, and in history. As Robert Wilson, author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, relates in our cover story, when President Lincoln visited the Union lines near Petersburg, Va., in June 1864, he took the opportunity to review the United States Colored Troops (USCT) of the XVIII Corps of the Army of the James, which had fought valiantly there days before. Brady was also on the Union lines around Petersburg at the same time, but, inexplicably, never crossed paths with the president. One can only imagine the impact an image, if it dared be taken, of Lincoln alongside black Union soldiers would have had at the time—and on our perceptions of the times. Now, 150 years after the Bureau of Colored Troops was created as a result of Lincoln’s courageous decision to open the ranks to African Americans, all of the USCT service records have been digitized by the National Archives— military/—in partnership with Fold3— category_268/. As a result, access to nearly 4 million images of historic documents and personal papers is just a click away, giving researchers and descendants of those men a new opportunity to understand and honor their service to their country.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.