Negro Troops Receive Instructions in the Field

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Negro Troops Receive Instructions in the Field
Allen Stringfellow
Oil on canvas
29.5 x 39.62 in.
DuSable Museum of African American History, purchased from Illinois State Historical Library

Take a close look at the area above this group of African American troops. The hazy, floating outline of Union and Confederate troops above their heads hints at the battle ahead for these men and their officer, as if they were dreaming of war. Officially participating in battle was an achievement for African American soldiers during the Civil War. Due to racial prejudice, the government had banned them from carrying arms and serving in the United States military since 1792. That ban did not stop some African Americans from fighting in the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812, but it did keep them from officially being recognized for their service. The federal government authorities were forced to reconsider this ban in 1862 for two reasons: the decreasing number of white volunteers and the increasing desire of African Americans to assist in the war effort. 

When African American soldiers won the right to fight, they fought in one of 163 segregated army units like the one you see here (they also served in the Union navy). This segregation meant that African Americans did not fight alongside white men. It wasn’t until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman issued an order forcing the military to desegregate. This painting, completed in 1963 during the Civil Rights Movement, documents and celebrates the service of African Americans at a time when America was still divided over racism, prejudice, and segregation.

1. Allen Stringfellow uses two different styles of painting: one to show the soldiers, and one to show their actions. R. Furan also uses this method in his portrait of Harriet Tubman. Do you like this way of telling a story? Compare these two paintings and talk about the similarities and differences.

2. At the time Stringfellow made this painting, many Americans were unaware that African Americans had served as soldiers in the Civil War. What is the meaning of Stringfellow’s painting in light of this fact?

Further reading:
McKeeby, David. “End of U.S. Military Segregation Set Stage for Rights Movement.” Archive.

National Archives. “Teaching with Documents: The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War.” National Archives.

©DuSable Museum of African American History