Civil War Veterans Come Alive in Audio and Video Recordings
From Free North Carolina
Deep in the collections of the Library of Congress are ghostly images and voices of Union and Confederate soldiers recalling the bloody battles of their youth
It is only a scrap of 86-year-old silent newsreel footage: an elderly black man named William Smallwood stands in threadbare clothes against a brick wall in Boston, performing the manual of arms with a wooden crutch. “Still ready if he’s needed,” declares a title card, presumably reflecting the old man’s sentiments. The clip is just one minute long. Smallwood provides no details of his life. Yet this bit of film is one of the rarest in existence. Not only does it capture one of the few moving images of an African-American Civil War veteran, but it may be the only one ever made of a soldier who fought with the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, made famous by the 1988 film Glory. (The clip inaccurately declares Smallwood to have been 109 years old at the time, proclaiming him the “oldest Civil War veteran”; he was actually about 85.)
Smallwood is just one of many Civil War veterans whose images may be seen and voices heard on reels of old film and audio recordings preserved in the collections of the Library of Congress. All are available to the public on request, although most are embedded in contemporary newsreels – for instance, a 1949 encampment of Confederate veterans in Arkansas is sandwiched disorientingly between a clip of President Harry Truman watching a staged airdrop of the 82nd Airborne Division and another clip of Don Newcombe hurling pitches to Joe DiMaggio in that year’s World Series.
To most of us, perhaps, the men who fought the Civil War may seem like the inhabitants of a sort of cinematic prehistory, quaintly memorialized in Currier & Ives prints, old newspaper engravings and the photographs of Mathew Brady. But here they are, like living ghosts in the flesh, the survivors of Bull Run and Antietam, Shiloh and Chickamauga, who saw Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee with their own eyes, and cheered their comrades into battle with these very voices that we now hear.