Process Blog Home

Richard Wright’s Civil War Cipher

Richard Wright sits for a photograph with a shelf of books behind him. He holds his hands in front of him and looks off to his right.

Richard Wright, 1943. “New York, New York. Richard Wright, Negro Poet,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USW3-030283-D

Grandpa “darkly boasted of having killed ‘mo’n mah fair share of them damn rebels’ while en route to enlist in the Union Army,” Richard Wright recalled.  “Granny’s conversations…[about] Grandpa’s life,” gave the novelist further details of the difficulties his maternal ancestor Richard Wilson endured during the Civil War. “Militantly resentful of slavery,” Wright penned in 1923, Grandpa “joined the Union Army to kill southern whites; he waded in icy streams; slept in mud; suffered, fought.”[i] Such stories served as more than fireside entertainment. They supplied an antidote to prevailing theories of emancipation.

Stories of Black southerners’ wartime gumption reflected an important strain of African American memory, a strain juxtaposed against Dunningite histories. Black southerners celebrated their ancestors’ grit to counter these derisive accounts, which asserted that enslaved men and women did little to claim liberty. The heroic strain of remembrance became increasingly prominent in scholarship amid the civil rights movement. And rightfully so. Over 130,000 Black southerners braved enormous peril in the U.S. Army. Their families also contributed, furnishing labor for the Union despite struggling in their men’s absences.[ii] As a fan of the film Glory during boyhood, I knew the cinematic expression of this tale. As a student of the past, I also appreciated the rich scholarship since the 1950s. So, when I first encountered a Black deserter about a decade ago, I was flummoxed.

“Why would an enslaved man desert the army?” I wondered. “Service gave him the chance to fight for freedom and to punish slavers.” The stakes seemed too high. “Hadn’t Frederick Douglass declared, ‘Who would be free themselves must strike the blow’”? I wrestled with how to interpret these men and understand accounts of their desertion.

Two African American soldiers pose for a photograph in their Union Army Uniforms. One sits, and the other stands with his hand on his comrade's shoulder.

Nearly 180,000 Black soldiers served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, including over 130,000 southerners. Many men had their photographs taken in uniform to communicate their patriotism. “Two Unidentified African American Soldiers in Union Sergeant’s Uniforms,” ca. 1863–1865. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-PPMSCA-41852

I was ultimately able to grapple with Black deserters’ decisions by expanding on Wright’s observation that Black political action is often not as it seems. Reading the sources as evidence of more than desertion, I came to understand an untold part of the freedom struggle. I uncovered Black men’s diverse expressions of masculinity, which I described in my recent JAH article. I also discovered the emancipatory tale of Wright’s paternal grandpa—a deserter who acted upon his views of freedom by decamping.

Records of Black deserters are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in courts-martial transcripts. Part of Record Group 153, these documents prove especially valuable because army regulations mandated that cases be accurately detailed. As such, officers’ words were consigned to paper. But so too were the perspectives of alleged criminals. These voices were not typically preserved in archives, as Lorien Foote notes in work on white soldiers. She observes that such transcripts provide the beliefs of men not aligned with the most powerful, and those often incapable of documenting their version of the events due to illiteracy.[iii] Similarly, the transcripts of Black soldiers offer the historian otherwise unrecorded perspectives. Yet words of Black deserters, alleged criminals, prove to be even more remarkable because they are so difficult to access.

Immediately after the war, Black historians William Wells Brown and Frances Rollin emphasized Black soldiers’ contributions to victory and the destruction of slavery. Not unlike white veterans who presented stories of the war to suit their political goals, African Americans knew that evidence of soldiers’ gallantry might win them rights and a spot at the table. To these ends they fashioned a “Black badge of courage” in their histories. Yet as Black heroes won newspaper attention and their chroniclers signed book contracts, the largely illiterate Black southerners could only regale friends and family with war stories orally. Therefore, courts-martial documents are virtually the only place to access stories that did not fit the courageous narrative.

An illustration of the spirit of Columbia, personified as a woman, resting her hand on a Black veteran's shoulder. He is missing a leg from the war, and stands proudly with support from two crutches .

“Franchise. And Not This Man?” This political cartoon reflected the postwar embrace of Black veterans as potential citizens by those who appreciated soldiers’ sacrifices. Thomas Nast, “Columbia Speaking, with Hand on Shoulder of Civil War Soldier, Who Lost a Leg in the War,” 1865. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-102257

Thus, while historians have utilized the courts-martial records to expound on the military experience, I  recognized them as something more. The trial transcripts are a space to explore the perspectives of men not necessarily united with northern Black elites’ ideals of military service or willing to abide by army discipline. To appreciate the political nature of the documents, however, I needed to rethink my method of interpretation. In my reading, I turned to the insights of scholars who examined marginalized groups’ political engagement.

Decoding Black soldiers’ expressions of freedom in the courts-martial requires understanding the sources as records of political action by those accustomed to operating on a distinct political spectrum. As enslaved men before the war, the soldiers’ ideas did not map neatly on modes of engagement popularized by Black northerners who ascribed to predominant democratic practices. Instead, Black southerners strategically devised means to subvert white power without directly confronting it. In his examination of these practices, Robin D. G. Kelley quotes Richard Wright. “Each day when you see us black folk,” the novelist wrote, “you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem.” To look beyond common political actions and identify engagement adapted to racial oppression, Kelley stresses reading the sources attentive to their context within well-practiced modes of resistance. This also requires attending not only to what was said but how it was said. I employed these insights to modify my interpretative approach.[iv]

By recognizing  courts-martial records as more than evidence of Black soldiers’ misconduct, I drew on Wright’s admission that “we are not what we seem.” I did not treat the soldiers as if they operated on the same political spectrum as one might initially expect. Instead, I couched Black southerners’ actions within the political world of slavery. In this context, poor discipline is judged as political action (not criminal activity), desertion is seen as mobility politics (not disloyalty), and courtroom testimonies and prison letters (as analyzed here) are shown to be Aristotelian appeals rather than merely sympathetic inducements.

A illustration from a book of sheet music. The image features Frederick Douglas escaping to freedom. with a walking stick and bundle of clothing in hand. He looks defiantly out at the viewer, and points towards a sign directing him to New England.

Flight served as a crucial means of escaping slavery altogether, as Frederick Douglass had fled. Within the confines of bondage, it also offered a way to claim control. It secured, if only temporarily, a few moments of liberty. Henry Prentiss, “The Fugitive’s Song,” 1845. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-PPMSCA-07616

Of course, sources themselves are not always as they seem. Recognizing sources’ complexity is even more important when dealing with legal records written by white people addressing suspected criminal behavior by Black men and women.

I did not enter the archive without considering the origin or the politics shaping the court transcripts’ production. But I also did not discard the indispensable sources. I instead realized that the records of Black soldiers’ must be read attentive to the circumstances surrounding their creation. I recognized that these soldiers voiced their opinion in a room full of white officers, and a desertion conviction might mean a death sentence. As such, most of the men fought for their lives with their words before a hostile audience. I acknowledged that the watchful white eyes undoubtedly affected what the alleged army criminals said and how they articulated themselves. To navigate these dynamics, I trusted the insights of historians who have addressed similarly problematic sources, the interviews of freedpeople collected by white interviewers as part of the Federal Writers of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s.

Historians debate the utility of the WPA interviews and how to compensate for their problems without jettisoning them altogether. Some scholars question the sources’ validity, pointing to respondents’ memory lapses and the danger they faced from lynching in the early twentieth-century South. These critiques are important to consider. Yet more optimistic readers observe the strength of memory and highlight that many freedpeople quieted trepidation to speak truth to power. Women like Sarah Gudger, for instance, contested white southerners who claimed the enslaved had been content. “I sho’ has had a ha’d life,” she declared. “Jes wok, an’ wok, an’ wok. I nebbah know nothin’ but wok.” Scholars also emphasize the implicit power of the testimonies, explaining that the interviewees’ accounts altered the history of slavery by affording enslaved men and women agency. Regardless of the stories told—and whether they truthfully captured the domination of bondage—respondents insisted that their role in plantation life was not passive. Accounts themselves, therefore, are testaments of resistance within slavery and challenge white authority. In my research of decamping Black soldiers, I was encouraged by these scholars’ confidence yet remained observant of the threats that might censor truth.[v]

Black and white photograph of Sarah Gudger sitting in front of window with a shawl over her shoulders and hands crossed in her lap.

In WPA narratives, freedpeople like Sarah Gudger offered their views of slavery frankly. They remarked on the grueling conditions while implying the pervasive manipulation of slavers. “Sarah Gudger, Age 121,” ca. 1936–1938. A926, vol. 11. 1, WPA Slave Narrative Project, Courtesy of Library of Congress Manuscripts Division

The courts-martial may have been shaped by political calculations Black respondents made as they fought for their lives. However, the content of the soldiers’ explanations, as well as their engagement with the process of creating the testimony, gestured to the validity of the transcripts as documentation of Black soldiers’ political acts. During their trials, Black soldiers often told stories that did not conform to military decorum. Although the soldiers might fear death, many never bowed to what they thought officers might want to hear. Black soldiers responded plainly about why they left.

The men also highlighted their own agency in breaking discipline. While some attempted to shift blame in cases of desertion to mitigate culpability, they often did not deny they decamped and frequently said why they left. In other words, they demonstrated apathy (if not antipathy) toward the rules they were accused of breaking. Through their decision to disregard the regulations and tell their stories of misconduct, the soldiers suggested that they did not attempt to conceal their motives or hide their disobedience. The men did the opposite. They explained their actions and rationale.

Moreover, there is little reason to think the men remarked on their suffering in anticipation of leniency. Signs within the military justice system suggested most commanders would not tolerate desertion whatever the cause. Commanders, like civilians, regularly cast deserters as shirkers regardless of the motivations leading to flight. This certainly contributed to the number of soldiers tried for desertion (which was more than any other crime) and of convicted deserters executed (which was also more than any other crime). Furthermore, soldiers knew well the consequences of military justice, as the army frequently forced the rank-and-file to gather around and watch executions.[vi]

The possibility of being found innocent probably seemed even more remote to Black southerners, given that they faced a tribunal of white men. These Black soldiers likely placed their judges on a continuum with other white men they once answered to, including slavers and their minions. Experiences under these tyrants assured Black southerners that white authorities had little if any patience for stories of fleeing work to see family or care for aching feet, a sore back, or a stubborn cough. Black men and women fought indefatigably to preserve and reunite kin, yet even the most touching explanations rarely earned those who ran lighter penalties.[vii] For these reasons, appealing to officers’ hearts with tales of woe (whether truthful or fabricated) likely did not seem the surest route to an acquittal or mercy.

With these factors in mind, I examined the court files to uncover part of the larger story told (and yet to be told) about Black soldiers. I was able to mine the voices of illiterate Black men whose views on emancipation did not seamlessly match up with the more prominent Black leaders or more learned soldiers. The men on trial delivered their testimonies during the war, when Union victory was hardly assured and emancipation remained uncodified. Unlike postwar documents, such as regimental histories or pension records, the transcripts did not orient themselves around postwar struggles over memory or government aid. These documents recorded the words and lives of often uneducated Black southerners and conveyed divergent behaviors not endorsed in recruiting posters or by rousing speeches. The documents present a distinctive story of Black soldiering and expose how, even in the army, emancipation was an uneven, complex process.

I recast the servicemen’s actions with attention to their lives in slavery and under the onus of racism. I recovered the political actions and resistance of Black soldiers labeled criminals. Indeed, this framework and nuanced appreciation of the court transcripts enabled me to understand why Richard Wright’s paternal grandfather, Nathan, and great-uncles, James and George, chose to decamp.

Born near Natchez, Mississippi, the Wright brothers escaped slavery and volunteered to enlist when Union forces occupied the area in July 1863. On August 18, 1863, they were mustered into the Sixth Mississippi Infantry (African Descent) (later the Fifty-Eighth United States Colored Infantry). Sickness ravaged the regiment that fall, so the brothers deserted on October 2. They returned in June 1865, on their “own accord,” as a comrade later stated. When tried for desertion, the brothers plead not guilty, noting their illnesses. James argued that at least ten men died a day and that he had become sick, so he left. Nathan echoed his older brother, telling the court, “I was sick all the time and came [back] as soon as I could.” Nonetheless, the judges convicted them, sentencing them to hard labor for one year and eight months.[viii]


A photograph of a folded sheet of handwritten text.

 Testimony from Pvt. Nathan Wright revealed his decision to decamp to regain his health. Nathan Wright, Court-martial File MM3325, folder 2, RG 153, Courtesy of National Archives

While the men’s flight undoubtedly made it difficult for military commanders to conduct operations, their actions were not—to the soldiers—crimes. Flight by formerly enslaved servicemen like Wright’s family was political. Decamping meant reclaiming freedom. As I describe in my JAH article, men hoped to care for family to enact an emancipated form of masculinity. Others, as I detail in my forthcoming monograph, struggled to redefine free labor by fleeing when ill or abused by white officers. Indeed, the Wright brothers saw their flight as a political act. It was meant to assert control over their health, not unlike enslaved men and women before the war.[ix]

The valor of Black soldiers like Wright’s maternal grandfather remains an important moment in American history. These soldiers contributed to the preservation of the Union and the destruction of slavery. Yet that is only part of the story. Black soldiers, including Wright’s paternal ancestors, pushed back against the confines of discipline to survive the war and emancipation. They expose, in Wright’s words, a stranger history of liberation in the U.S. Army.

Jonathan Lande earned his Ph.D. at Brown University (2018) and is an assistant professor of history at Purdue University. Before joining Purdue, he was the Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow at the New-York Historical Society and the Brown-Tougaloo Exchange Faculty Fellow. He is the recipient of the Allan Nevins and Cromwell Dissertation Prizes. He is currently completing a book examining Black deserters and mutineers during the Civil War, which is under contract with Oxford University Press.

[i] Richard Wright, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1946), 123.

[ii] Scholarship on Black soldiering is now both wide and deep. For an overview of it, see Joseph P. Reidy, “The Black Military Experience,” in The Cambridge History of the American Civil War, vol. 3: Affairs of the People, ed. Aaron Sheehan-Dean (2019). For women’s contributions, see especially Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (2020), 88–118, 221–42.

[iii] Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (2010), 181–85.

[iv] Robin D. G. Kelley, “‘We Are Not What We Seem’: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” Journal of American History, 80 (June 1993): 77–78. See also Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (1994), 21–23. For an exemplary use of such an interpretation that was pivotal to my reading, see Stephanie M. H. Camp’s work on enslaved women who, when facing the threat of violent retaliation, developed tools that avoided confrontation and ventured into a “rival geography” in fancy dresses to reclaim their bodies. Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004).

[v] John W. Blassingame, “Using the Testimony of Ex-slaves: Approaches and Problems,” Journal of Southern History, 41 (Nov. 1975), 473–92; John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews and Autobiographies (1977), xliv–xlv. Donna J. Spindel, “Assessing Memory: Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives Reconsidered,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 27 (Autumn 1996), 259–61. Paul D. Escott, Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives (1979), 6–7. Rebecca J. Fraser, Courtship and Love among the Enslaved in North Carolina (2007), 16; Edward E. Baptist, “‘Stol’ and Fetched Here’: Enslaved Migration, Ex-Slave Narratives, and Vernacular History,” in New Studies in the History of American Slavery, ed. Edward E. Baptist and Stephanie M. H. Camp (2006), 247. Sergio A. Lussana, My Brother Slaves: Friendship, Masculinity, and Resistance in the Antebellum South (2016), 12. For similar arguments yet with regard to antebellum courtroom testimony, see Winthrop D. Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (1993), 91; and Kimberly M. Welch, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (2018), 27.

[vi] Steven J. Ramold, Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army (2009), 222–23, 253, 328, 372–82. For white deserters, see especially Ella Lonn, Desertion during the Civil War (1998); William Blair, Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865 (1998), 60, 64, 88–89; Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (2007), 4, 90–96; Joseph T. Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (2008), 408–20; and Peter S. Carmichael, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies (2018), 178–79.

[vii] Heather Andrea Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (2012), 82–88; Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (2014), 73.

[viii] Nathaniel was enlisted and served as “Nathan.” James Wright, George Wright, and Nathan Wright, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, RG 94, National Archives, (Washington, D.C.) Hazel Rowley writes that James and George deserted, but Nathan did not. Nathan’s service record and courts-martial case reveal he joined his brothers. Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: The Life and Times (2001), 3–4. James Wright, George Wright, Nathan Wright, Court-martial File MM3325, folders 1 and 2, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General, RG 153, National Archives.

[ix] For the politics of health among the enslaved, see Sharla M. Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (2002). For white soldiers’ practices of self-care, see Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (2013).