Tintype of Black Union Soldier, J. L. Balldwin

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Tintype of Black Union Soldier, J. L. Balldwin
c. 1863
Chicago History Museum

Can you read this person’s name? It is written on the side of the oval image: “J. L. Balldwin.” Do you see the marks on the sign he holds? They read “Co. G 56,” which means he belonged to Company G, 56th United States Colored Infantry. The three stripes on his left sleeve tell us that he was a sergeant. He sits proudly in front of a United States flag, one of nearly 200,000 African American men to serve the Union cause during the Civil War. While some free blacks served in the war, most were former slaves who enlisted after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Tintypes such as this one were very popular during the war. They were more expensive than unframed carte de visites, but they also allowed the sitter to be given a print only minutes after the photograph was taken. Soldiers sought out photography studios while away from home to have their portraits made. These became special keepsakes for family members and friends. Photography came into its own during the Civil War as scores of images were taken of soldiers, officers, camp grounds, and the aftermath of many battles. Civil War photographers created an invaluable record that puts us in touch with the people, issues, and events that shaped our nation’s history.

1. Compare and contrast this photograph with the portraits of Union soldiers in Come and Join Us Brothers or the Scrimshaw with portrait of black soldier. What does photography show that the others do not? What impressions do the other artworks create that the tintype does not?

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