A special section of The New York Times this month compiled a list of the 10 coolest museums in the world. With shout-outs to the Lego House in Denmark and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., we were excited and honored to see Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation kick off the list.
Visitors to the museum have long known what makes it such a cool destination, as The New York Times pointed out – we're "chock-full of inventions, machines and pieces of Americana to explore, including a 1952 Wienermobile."
But what else makes our museum so cool? Take a look at just a few of the well-known artifacts, exhibits, and experiences that inspire our younger visitors every day and challenge them to think differently.
The Rosa Parks Bus Inside this bus on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a soft-spoken African-American seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white man, breaking existing segregation laws. Today you can step inside the bus yourself and take a seat as you immerse yourself in the courage of Rosa Parks.
Driving America Driving America is an opportunity to look at America’s favorite mode of transportation in a different way. Stand back in awe as you explore some of the earliest automobiles to take to America's roads, and then immerse yourself in our interactive exhibits to dive deep into our digital collections.
Build a Model T Do you think you could build a Model T just like Henry Ford? Pick up a wrench and see if you could build a quality product in 2018.
Dymaxion House Enter Buckminster Fuller's circular aluminum dwelling, and sample a suburbia never realized. To some people Dymaxion is a giant Hershey’s Kiss. Others sense a kinship with the Airstream travel trailer. Painstakingly restored, it’s the only remaining prototype in the world.
Steer the Allegheny What does it look like from the conductor's perspective on the Allegheny, one of the largest steam locomotives ever built? Step up to seat and see for yourself.
Maker Faire Detroit Which event is a wild two-day spectacle of maker inventions and creations at the home of American innovation? Maker Faire Detroit, housed inside and outside of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Who else made The New York Times list? Take a look.
THF233334 / Advertising Process Photograph Showing the 1963 Ford Mustang II Concept Car.
The 1963 Mustang II (not to be confused with the Ford Pinto-based production Mustang II of the 1970s) surely is one of the most unusual concept cars ever built. Industry practice (and common sense) tells us that an automaker builds a concept car as a kind of far-out “dream car” to generate excitement at car shows. Most never go past the concept stage, but a few do make it into regular production. (Chevrolet’s Corvette and Dodge’s Viper are notable examples.) The Mustang II previewed the production Ford Mustang we all know and love, but the concept car was designed and built after the production Mustang project already was well underway! Why? It’s a case of managing public expectations.
Most Mustang histories start with the 1962 Mustang I, but devoted pony fans know that Mustang I was an entirely separate project from the production car. Ford built the “Mustang Experimental Sports Car” (its original name – the “I” was a retrospective addition) to spark interest in the company’s activities. Ford was going back into racing and looking for a quick way to create some buzz about the exciting things happening in Dearborn. The plan worked a bit too well. When Mustang I debuted at Watkins Glen in October 1962, and then hit the car show circuit, the public went crazy and sent countless letters to Ford begging the company to put the little two-seater into production.
At the same time Mustang I was being built, another team at Ford was working on the production Mustang that would debut in April 1964. Mustang I’s popularity created a problem: Everyone loved the two-seat race car, but would they feel the same about the four-seat version? The solution was to build a new four-seat prototype closely based on the production Mustang’s design.
Enter the 1963 Mustang II.
The new concept car wasn’t just based on the production Mustang’s design – it was actually built from a prototype production Mustang body. Ford designers removed the front and rear bumpers, altered the headlights and grille treatment, and fitted Mustang II with a removable roof. While the car looked different from the production Mustang, a few of the production car’s trademark styling cues were retained, including the C-shaped side sculpting and the tri-bar taillights. Mustang II also consciously borrowed from Mustang I, employing the 1962 car’s distinct white paint and blue racing stripes. Conceptually and physically, the four-seat Mustang II formed a bridge linking the 1962 Mustang I with the 1965 production car. Mustang II was a hit when it debuted at Watkins Glen in October 1963, and when the production version premiered six months later, there were few complaints about the four seats instead of two.
Fortunately, Mustang II is one “link” that isn’t “missing.” The Detroit Historical Society acquired the car in 1975 and has taken great care of it ever since.
When Thomas Edison decided to develop a commercial lighting system he had to do far more than design a light bulb and generator: he and his collaborators had to devise the entire system -- right down to the wire insulation and fuses. Even the electrical measuring instruments that were needed to chart the progress of experiments had to be sought from other fields such as telegraphy.
Edison demonstrated his lighting system to the public for the first time in December 1879, but the system was hardly a workable commercial product. Many refinements -- to increase durability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness -- would be needed before his lighting system could be described as a competitive product. One of the most important missing elements was a meter for keeping track of customers' electricity usage. The electrical meter that Edison and his collaborators devised was an ingenious device -- an arrangement that allowed the amount of electricity a customer used to be weighed.
The meter, known as the Edison Chemical or Electrolytic Meter, was in essence a laboratory apparatus installed in the basements of customers' buildings. It consisted of two glass jars filled with a zinc sulphate solution; immersed in each jar were a pair of electrodes -- matched pairs of zinc plates. The operation was deceptively simple. A portion of the current flowing into the customer's electrical system passed through the plates, causing an electrolytic reaction. The more electricity a customer used, the more zinc would be transferred from one plate to the other. It was this difference in weight that allowed the electrical bill to be determined. Usage was calculated on a monthly basis: an Edison employee would replace the previous month's plates with a new set whose weight had already been carefully recorded. The old plates were taken away to have their weight checked and a bill calculated. The body of the meter had to be tough and tamper-proof -- hence the term "ironclad" that was used to describe this all-metal meter. Later units were wooden boxes with a metal door. In either case, the enclosure was secured with the kind of lead seal that is still used to guard modern electric or gas meter mechanisms.
Meters like this remained in service in some installations well into the 1890s. Many customers were distrustful of this metering method, asserting that the plate removal and remote calculations allowed them no way of checking whether the company was padding their bills. Modern numerical meters allow consumers to see a read-out of their electricity, gas, or water usage. However, the meters' settings -- and indeed the consistency of different meters -- is still something we trust to the utility company.
Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director, Historical Resources, at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.
Writer demonstrating proper posture and hand-holding position, c. 1800. THF286087
In her recent article, “Cursive: Dead or Alive?” (The Henry Ford Magazine, June-December 2017), author Anne Trubek asserts that, today, cursive writing “is becoming retro-cool, more interesting precisely because its utility has largely passed.”
Indeed, the importance of penmanship—as cursive writing was once called—has radically declined as part of school curricula in recent years. It is no longer required in most states’ Common Core standards—due to increased technology use, the rejection of repetitive drills as teaching tools, and the higher importance placed on reading and math in government-issued tests. However, not everyone agrees that eliminating it from the curriculum is desirable, arguing that mastery of cursive writing helps with hand-eye coordination, long-term memory, problem-solving, and idea generation.
The heated debate about the need for young people to learn cursive writing—or not—raises the question of how we got here. In fact, the story of handwriting in America is one of continual adaptation to technological and social change, and in no small part the influence of two innovators whose names have been largely forgotten today—Platt Rogers Spencer and Austin Norman Palmer.
A trained engrosser transcribed the original 1776 version of this document—the Declaration of Independence—from Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft. THF92259
In the 1700s, as more people learned to read and printed materials became more available, reading became a desirable skill. But writing? That was reserved exclusively for the wealthy and for those whose profession required it—like merchants, bookkeepers, legal clerks, and engrossers (those trained to transcribe the final draft of a document in a large, clear hand).
Handwriting in those days was tedious and difficult, including learning how to fashion quills from goose feathers, mix ink, rule lines on paper, and use the ink-filled quill without spotting or smudging the paper.
Writing became a more widely accepted and embraced skill during the early 1800s, as self-trained writing masters traveled around the country offering courses of instruction. In more populated urban areas, they offered private writing courses in what were in essence the first business colleges.
To motivate students, teachers often bestowed awards for good penmanship, like this 1877 example. THF286089
In small towns and villages, writing masters taught the rudiments of handwriting to students in the growing number of common, or public, schools. Learning to write came to be considered as important a skill as reading and arithmetic for schoolchildren (actually, boys) in preparation for their future roles in industrial America.
The word “Penmanship” on the cover of this 1867 Spencerian writing book exemplifies that very writing method. THF286020
One particular writing master, Platt Rogers Spencer, would become so successful that his approach to handwriting almost completely dominated penmanship education during the post-Civil War period. Spencer realized that, to truly influence how most Americans learned to write, he needed to go right to the source. So he brought penmanship lessons directly to teacher-training schools. From there, the popularity of his writing method spread to public and private education at all levels—from business colleges down to primary schools. So pervasive and dominant was his influence that Spencer became known as the “Father of American Handwriting.”
This fancy trade card gives an idea of the level of expertise in penmanship that students of the Toledo Business College would attain. THF225626
Spencer’s unique approach to handwriting reduced the alphabet to a few elemental principles, equating each letter—and parts of each letter—to natural forms like waves, sunbeams, clouds, and leaves. In this way, he could claim that his approach was not just a series of mechanical movements but also a “noble and refining art.” At the same time, his handwriting lessons emphasized order and precision. With students from different walks of life—rural and urban, rich and poor, obedient and unruly, foreign- and American-born—all practicing exactly the same lessons, Spencer could claim that learning his handwriting method would mold America’s young people into reliable citizens and obedient future workers.
The Ford Motor Company logo is an example of Spencerian writing, which Henry Ford learned in school. THF104934
Spencerian became the dominant handwriting method in America from the 1860s into the early 1900s. It seemed to fit everything that Americans strived for. That was, until penmanship entrepreneur Austin Norman Palmer came along, claiming that Spencerian handwriting was all wrong for Americans. He argued that Spencerian script was too ornate, too meticulous, too slow, too tiring, even too feminine. What Americans wanted and needed, he argued, was a “plain and rapid” style adapted to “the rush of business,” a style that was masculine and unsentimental.
As shown in this 1920s language composition book, students learning the Palmer method were taught to pride themselves on their penmanship, which was considered a judge of good character. THF247435
Palmer introduced a new approach—one which forced the muscles to move in certain patterns—over and over and over, with the idea that the muscles would imprint the memory of these movements into the brain and become habit. Though the approach was radically different, Palmer’s goal—like Spencer’s—was ultimately about social control. Disciplining the body, he asserted, would also force students to conform to the conventions of society. He came down particularly hard on left-handedness, which he considered deviant, and he insisted that left-handers learn to write with their right hand.
Students of Henry Ford’s Edison Institute school system hard at work practicing their writing skills, 1944. THF126142
The Palmer method began displacing the Spencerian method of handwriting by the 1890s and, by the second decade of the 1900s, millions of Americans had become “Palmerized.” In truth, given the limited resources and lack of teacher training in many communities—as well as negative attitudes by both teachers and students toward the rigorous requirements of this method—the Palmer method was not strictly enforced in most school systems and it was often combined with other handwriting methods.
This type of school desk, made in the 1940s but used well into the 1960s, contains a hole for an ink bottle to be used with a dip pen. THF158363
Paralleling new studies in child psychology and new approaches to childhood education, two trends emerged in the 1900s. First was the realization that young children simply did not possess the motor skills to learn cursive writing, leading to a new emphasis on learning printing first and cursive writing later. Second, a new attitude emerged that writing could be more than a mechanical movement—it could become an outlet for self-expression.
The brightly colored images on this early 1970s school box, used for holding writing implements and other school supplies, were inspired by those of Peter Max and other psychedelic designers of the era. THF169170
Coinciding with these trends were new forms of technology—from typewriters to word processors to personal computers—that, by the end of the century, displaced the need for handwriting in our society. Meanwhile, ink-dipped steel pens of the early 1900s were replaced by ballpoint and rollerball pens later in the century, and by Smartphones and iPads today.
As Americans, we tend to romanticize and revive that which we have lost. So it comes as no surprise that, as computers have replaced the necessity of handwriting, so handwriting has become an art, a craft, the province of “makers”—equated with creativity and self-expression.
We’ll see what lies in store for handwriting into the future.
For further reading on this topic, take a look at, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (by Tamara Plakins Thornton, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford and handwrote this blogpost—believing that putting pen to paper helps her think more creatively than typing on a computer keyboard.
In 19th-century America, sturdy waterproof stoneware pottery became popular for utilitarian items such as crocks, jugs, and butter churns. The rough-textured outer glaze was created when common rock salt was thrown into the kiln during firing, which vaporized and combined with melted silica from the pottery.
The blue decoration--made with a cobalt oxide glaze mixture--lent variety and artistry to these otherwise plain pieces.
The pottery is one of the few manufacturers in the world that continues to employ the centuries-old technique of glazing ceramics with salt during the firing process. The application is difficult to control, giving each piece of stoneware a unique texture and distinctive colored finish.
See their pottery inspiration examples in "A Type of Learning" in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and learn more about the ongoing artistry of salt-glazed stoneware in our digital collections.
In the early 19th century, lined paper was generally used only in business ledgers and account books. And the ruling was done by hand using cylindrical rulers and dip pens. Imagine the tedious hours that went into ruling just one book, with multiple colored lines as well as many stop lines, cross lines and sets of double as well as single lines.
In the 1840s, William Orville Hickok got to work on improving this by-hand paper-ruling process, inventing a machine that had a moving belt running beneath a set of pen nibs held in place by a crossbar. Cotton threads, dipped into a trough of ink containers, kept the overhead pens moist. Ink was applied from the mounted pens to the paper fed through the machine — an exercise in perfect positioning and synchronicity.
Learn more about William Orville Hickok and his contributions to the paper-ruling business, and see the 1913 Hickok Paper Ruling Machine for yourself in Made in America at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. The Hickok paper-ruling machine was donated by Carl H. Dubac of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1986. Dubac’s father, who bound books by hand for more than 60 years, used the machine to line paper for ledger books.
When the 29 millionth Ford came off the assembly line in 1941 there was no doubt who the owner would be - a group of American Red Cross volunteers were waiting for the keys as the car rolled into sight. The donation of the vehicle was just a small part of the role Ford Motor Company undertook with the American Red Cross during World War II. Both Henry and Edsel Ford not only made large monetary donations and sponsored blood drives and fundraisers at Ford plants, but they also gave space, teachers, supplies, and vehicles to the Detroit Chapter of the American Red Cross Motor Corp.
Edsel Ford Presents the 29-Millionth Ford to the Red Cross, April 29, 1941. THF270135
The Motor Corp., which was started during WWI in 1918, was a segment of the American Red Cross made up of women civilian volunteers. They were responsible for transporting wounded and sick soldiers to various hospitals; conveying donated blood, supplies, and food to airstrips for over overseas transport, and also driving hospital volunteers, Red Cross personnel, and visiting military family members to hospitals, recovery centers, and funeral homes. The Motor Corp. served the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Blood Blank, various social agencies, and the USO. These women provided their own vehicles, gas, time, and tools and also had to purchase their uniform, and insignias for their cars.
Not only were volunteers in the Motor Corp. required to provide their own vehicles but they had to perform their own maintenance as well. Many of the volunteers had never been called on to service a car, and with wartime restrictions on materials, auto repair was even more difficult. Ford Motor Company stepped in to offer mechanics training courses to Detroit Chapter Motor Corp. volunteers. The Company provided trained mechanics, free of charge, to teach groups of volunteers the basics of car maintenance. According to the National Red Cross Motor Corp. Volunteer Special Services Manual, the mechanics course should cover how to “change a tire, apply chains, replace light bulbs, check gas flow at carburetor back through fuel pump to tank, check battery, check loose electrical connections, check spark plugs, and check electrical current at generator and distributor.” Volunteers didn’t have it easy, instructor were encouraged to “disconnect various electrical wires and parts of the gas pipe system” so members could analyze what was wrong and fix it. Ford opened up rooms in Highland Park for many of the training classes in 1941, and dealerships all over Detroit were made available for evening classes. The classwork included both informational lecture instruction and hands-on training on automobiles. The company also provided trucks for driving tests, and other equipment needed by the local Corp.
Red Cross Women's Motor Corps Workers Learn about Auto Maintenance, March 1941. THF269991
The first vehicle Ford donated to the Red Cross during WWII was an important vehicle to the company. The car was a Super Deluxe Ford Station Wagon, but this was no ordinary car, it was the 29 millionth Ford car produced in their 38 year history. The car sported the Motor Corp. insignia on the front door and carried a ceremonial license plate of "29,000,000." The morning of April 29th, 1941 found Edsel Ford with a group of volunteers from the Motor Corp. of the Detroit chapter of the American Red Cross. A dozen or so representatives of the Motor Corp gathered with Ford as the car rolled to the end of the line. Edsel handed off the keys to the Captain of the Detroit Motor Corp, Barbara Rumney, who took the wheel as Edsel joined her for a ride in the new car.
Edsel Ford Presents the 29-Millionth Ford to the Red Cross Women's Motor Corps, April 29, 1941. THF270143
By 1942, the Detroit Chapter of the Motor Corp. had over 1,300 trained volunteers, and after Ford’s donation of the 29 millionth car, had added 22 other pieces of equipment to broaden their reach and impact. Barbara Rumney wrote Ford stating “We realize that if it had not been for your generous response, we could not have attempted many of the things that we are doing to serve our country in its crisis.” Over the course of World War II 45,000 women volunteered for the American Red Cross Motor Corp. driving 41 million miles to support the war effort.
Red Cross Women's Motor Corps Worker Learning about Auto Maintenance, November 1941. THF270091
Kathy Makas is a Reference Archivist for the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. There’s plenty more in our collections on Ford Motor Company and the war effort. Visit the Benson Ford Research Center Monday-Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Set up an appointment in the reading room or AskUs a question.
For the past 25 years House Industries has been known for their unique font collections. Their fonts have been used to create logos for some of the best-known brands, from entertainers to news outlets. At The Henry Ford, our collections house some important printing presses. The printing press democratized knowledge. As mechanical improvements were made, printing became faster and cheaper. By extension, the content of newspapers and books diversified, and the printed word was distributed on a mass scale.
This collection documents the mechanical lineage of printing presses, from a circa 1809 Ramage--one of the oldest surviving hand presses in the country--to the efficient Mergenthaler Linotype composing machine.
Record Album, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," 1967. THF 113167
Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles released their album "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band." Thousands of young people flocked to San Francisco to experience the "Summer of Love."
The summer of 1967 saw the flowering of a counterculture movement, a reaction against the moral complacency and social conformity of postwar America, that would create ripples of change in American society in the coming years. An alternative vision of living—vastly different from the traditional and conformist 1950s—ignited the imaginations of millions of young Americans who came of age during the 1960s. The times, they were a-changing.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band When the Beatles released their album "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" in June 1967, it inspired a generation with optimism and an alternative vision of possibility. Young people had eagerly waited for it in great anticipation—it was the first album whose release was truly an "event."
By the time the Beatles recorded "Sgt. Pepper," they were beginning to incorporate a variety of new influences in their music, including a broader range of instruments—including an Indian sitar—and innovative recording techniques. The album features elaborate musical arrangements and use of studio effects like echo and reverberation. The album cover was truly smashing. It featured a colorful collage of cardboard models of famous people—at its center appeared the Beatles themselves, dressed in day-glo satin military band-style outfits. With its mystical influences, psychedelic music, and fanciful album art, "Sgt. Pepper" encapsulated the very essence of counterculture aesthetic.
Millions around the world were galvanized by "Sgt. Pepper’s" music and message. Alienated youth, searching for a better society and a good life, were entranced by the Beatles’ vision of what could be, rather than what was. he album quickly anointed the Beatles as leaders of the 1960s counterculture movement.
The Summer of Love If "Sgt. Pepper" was the quintessential counterculture album, San Francisco’s "Summer of Love" was an iconic counterculture event.
In 1967, the "Summer of Love" turned national attention to the emerging counterculture movement. That summer, over 100,000 young people came to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, drawn by a "groovy" counterculture vision of freedom and social harmony. Teenagers and college students with rainbow-colored clothing and long hair flocked to join the cultural utopia. Thousands of aspiring, idealistic flower children—mesmerized by images of incense, flowers, psychedelia, acid rock, peace signs and cosmic harmony—gathered in Haight-Ashbury to indulge in communal living, drugs, music, and free love.
Concert Poster for Electric Flag American Music Band, Moby Grape, and Steve Miller Blues Band at The Fillmore, 1967. THF 125134
Record Album, Jefferson Airplane "Surrealistic Pillow," 1967. THF 125136
Rock concerts were an important source of community. In San Francisco during this time, local rock groups like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead—who were beginning to achieve nationwide popularity and commercial success—provided a counterculture soundtrack. These bands entertained at free concerts around the Haight and Golden Gate Park, and played paid engagements at nearby Fillmore West and Winterland.
Yet this months-long psychedelic love-in, with its counterculture ideals, could not sustain its participants. Overcrowding, homelessness, hunger and drug problems were rampant. By early fall, the crowds had melted away as students returned to school and other young people left to practice alternative living in new settings.
But these new ideas, values, behaviors and styles of fashion defined the coming-of-age of a generation. America’s youth eschewed chasing material success and social status, and championed alternative, non-conformist ways of living. They embraced things like transcendental meditation, hallucinogenic drugs, and utopian communal living. America’s youth were determined to change "the system."
Counterculture Goes Commercial Counterculture values distained capitalism. Yet, ironically, the counterculture also developed a commercial side. Retailers enthusiastically sold faded blue jeans, hippie-inspired fashions, beads, and incense. Health food stores sprouted up. Rock groups, despite protests against materialism or capitalism in their song lyrics, made millions from their concert tours and record albums.
By the mid-1970s, the counterculture movement was winding down. Many of the flower children had by then joined "the establishment," taking up professions or becoming businesspeople—living much more "traditional" lives.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
”We are Bound for Glory with a Fair Wind, Nothing but Working and Fighting Ahead.” – Samuel Chapman Armstrong, Lt. Col., 9th USCT, between Hilton Head, South Carolina and Petersburg, VA, 1864
The American Civil War was the seminal event affecting daily life and ideals about freedom and citizenship during the 1860s and beyond. People coped with the reality of war-time devastation in a variety of ways. As the Civil War generation passed during the late 1920s and 1930s, when the collections of The Henry Ford were forming, the sacred family mementos that associated with personal memories of pride, honor and glory became part of this great museum of the American experience. Even though The Henry Ford is not a military history museum, the collections are rich with Civil War photographs and letters, battlefield relics, and even a medal of honor. The war is deeply imbedded in the collective memory of 19th and early 20th century Americans, and it was so often included in the “archives” of their lives that, by default, their mementos became part of our collections.
Henry Ford’s own interest in documenting the lives of his parents and his own childhood and young adulthood, caused him to collect his own family’s rich Civil War stories. Two of Henry’s mother’s brothers, John and Barney Litogot, served in the storied 24th Michigan. John was killed near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Barney survived to fight in many battles, including Gettysburg. He also served in the honor guard at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.
John and Barney Litogot at the time of their enlistment, August, 1862. THF 226852
The variety of Civil War objects in the collection is amazing, and represents both Union and Confederate perspectives.
Keeping troops in the field proved challenging for the Confederacy and the Union. A broadside confirms pay scales for Union troops and employees of the United States Army.
Recruiting Broadside, United States Army, c1863. THF 8551
Lackluster enlistment, however, prompted both armies to institute conscription. The Confederacy did this in April 1862 and the Union followed in March 1863.
The U.S. Army issued broadsides to recruit soldiers, including men of African descent, after passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. One broadside in the collection depicts a white male standard bearer front and center and elevated above others in the scene. He is armed with a sword and the banner, “Freedom to the Slave.” To the left sits a public school and a black man reading a newspaper rather than manning the plow. This implied that education and literacy could free people from manual labor. To the right, a black soldier aids black women and children recently freed from the shackles of slavery while black troops fight in the background.
“Freedom to the Slave. . . Fight for the Stars and Stripes,” 1863-1865. THF 118383
Black men had opportunities to serve in the Union forces before the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, in May 1862, General David Hunter, in command of occupying forces in Hilton Head, South Carolina, organized the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. He acted without permission of the War Department and reputedly impressed men enslaved on plantations in the occupied territory into service. This sparked controversy about whether contraband of war, the enslaved in occupied territory, could, or should, serve in the military. The regiment disbanded in August 1862
Wood Engraving, First and Last Dress Review of 1st Regiment South Carolina (Negro) Volunteers, 1862. THF 11672.
The Militia Act on July 1, 1862 made it legal for the U.S. President, as commander in chief, to accept “persons of African descent” into the Union military or navy. The Militia Act authorized their pay and rations equivalent to that of soldiers already serving, but instead of $13 per month, they received $10 per month, with the remaining $3 paid in clothing). It also allowed persons of African descent to work for the Union, performing camp service and building fortifications.
Union officers reorganized the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry in November 1862, in conjunction with the Port Royal Experiment to redistribute lands on the Sea Islands of South Carolina to the formerly enslaved. Company A, under command of Charles T. Trowbridge, became the first official regiment of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) on January 1, 1863, the same day that officials read the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time, in Beaufort, South Carolina, on Port Royal Island, just south of Fort Sumter. The First South Carolina was renamed the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry in 1864 and remained in service until January 31, 1866.
"Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored) near Beaufort, South Carolina," 1861-1865. THF 8221
Stories of tragedy and triumph abound in the history of the USCT, including experiences lived by residents on our own Susquehanna Plantation.
Susquehanna as it appears in Greenfield Village today. THF 2024
Morris Robertson, an enslaved carpenter, left Susquehanna and enlisted with the Federal Army on October 25, 1863. He became a member of the 9th USCT, Company C. This regiment was organized at Camp Stanton, Benedict, Maryland, from November 11 to December 31, 1863. They saw service in South Carolina and Virginia, including Petersburg and Richmond. Following the end of hostilities, the regiment was moved to Brownsville, Texas, where it remained until September 1866. The 9th was ordered to Louisiana in October and mustered out at New Orleans, November 26, 1866. Sadly, it was in Brownsville, Texas, very near the end of his term of service that Morris Robertson died of cholera on August 25, 1866. We would like to think that Morris’ brief time of freedom, though under frequent periods of extreme danger, gave him some joy. It is troubling to know that though free, he would never see his family again.
Service Record for Morris Robertson from the Company Descriptive Book. (Library of Congress)
Other objects in the collections document USCT in several other states, and confirms their service across the Confederate States from Virginia to south Texas. Examples include the 54th Massachusetts, perhaps the most well-known USCT regiment. It received national media attention in July 1863 for its “gallant charge” on rebel-held Fort Wagner, on Morris Island in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor.
Lithograph: GALLANT CHARGE OF THE FIFTY FOURTH (COLORED) MASSACHUSETTS REGIMENT / On the Rebel Works at Fort Wagner; Morris Island near Charleston, July 18th 1863, and the death of Colonel Robt. G. Shaw. THF 73704
USCT saw action in the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence includes a portrait of J.D. Brooker. Inscriptions on the back of the photo matte indicated that Brooker served with the Corps d’Afrique, 79th Regiment of Infantry. U.S. Army recruiters worked at the parish-level in occupied Louisiana, to attract volunteers. Troops saw heavy action during the Port Hudson campaign, May through July 1863. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks praised the Corps--"It gives me great pleasure to report that they answered every expectation. In many respects their conduct was heroic. No troops could be more determined or more daring."
Portrait of J.D. Brooker, soldier with the Corps d'Afrique 79th U.S. Colored Troops from Louisiana. THF 93151
Fragments of “our flag” were glued to the back of J.D. Brooker’s portrait.
Collections include portraits of white commanding officers of black troops.
Union Army Colonel Bernard Gains Farrar, who assisted in the siege of Vicksburg, recruited African-American troops from the area after Vicksburg fell. He commanded the 6th U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery.
Portrait of a Union Army Colonel Bernard Gains Farrar, 1862-1864. THF 6229
Lieutenant Andrew Coats, served with the 7th Colored Infantry Regiment and as Acting Assistant Adjutant General for the District of Florida. In 1864, the 7th Colored Infantry Regiment was part of the 10th Army Corps, located in the area of Hilton Head and Beaufort, South Carolina.
Portrait of Lieutenant Andrew Coats, 7th Colored Infantry Regiment, 1864. THF 57539
Americans of African descent remained the fulcrum around which debates about status and citizenship revolved. An 1864 print by Currier and Ives, conveyed this debate graphically as a contrast between the George B. McClellan, the Democratic presidential candidate, who wanted to restore the Union, but not abolish slavery, and the incumbent, Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation. If McClellan won the election, the CSA president, Jefferson Davis, would slit their throats. If President Lincoln retained his seat, black soldiers could stand at Lincoln’s right hand, defending the Union of States against CSA president Davis, in rags and on his posterior and held at bay by Lincoln. Black soldiers, however, remained culturally distinctive in the Currier and Ives depiction, as the dialect in the captioning re-enforced.
“Your Plan and Mine,” Political Cartoon, Presidential Campaign, 1864. THF 251879
Our collections also document post-war service of USCT. The Muster Roll for Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry confirmed the presence of men serving in the Regiment between April 30 and June 30, 1865. It also included names of at least fifteen men who had been taken as prisoners of war and men who had been discharged and deceased. The roll may have been used to keep track of soldiers after the war, perhaps for pension applications. Some annotations are dated 1885 and 1890. The Company E, 46th Regiment USCT saw action in Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta.
Another muster roll, confirmed the presence of thirteen soldiers in Company G, 25th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, on April 12, 1865. Col. F.L. Hitchcock, commanding officer of the troops in Fort Barrancas, Florida, signed the roll. It includes details about each soldier:
Name; Rank; Date mustered in; Place mustered in; Mustered in by [name]; How long in service; Hair color; Eye color; Complexion color; Height (feet and inches); Where born; Age; Occupation; Pay information.
The 25th Regiment USCT was on garrison duty at Fort Barrancas, Florida, when these soldiers were recruited, and remained on garrison duty until December, 1865, never seeing action. During the spring and summer of 1865 about 150 men died of scurvy, the result of lack of proper food. Col. Hitchcock wrote:
"I desire to bear testimony to the esprit du corps, and general efficiency of the organization as a regiment, to the competency and general good character of its officers, to the soldierly bearing, fidelity to duty, and patriotism of its men. Having seen active service in the Army of the Potomac, prior to my connection with the Twenty-fifth, I can speak with some degree of assurance. After a proper time had been devoted to its drill, I never for a moment doubted what would be its conduct under fire. It would have done its full duty beyond question. An opportunity to prove this the Government never afforded, and the men always felt this a grievance."
Muster Roll of 13 Soldiers in Company G, 25th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, April 12, 1865. THF 284824
As we pause to celebrate Memorial Day, a holiday with its origins linked to the Civil War, we need to pause to also honor all those who have given their lives in service, and all those who have, and continue to, serve to protect our freedoms. Americans did not agree on the meaning of freedom during the 1860s, and the evidence indicates that Americans of African descent were not given their freedom by white Americans. They fought during the Civil War to attain it.
Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford. Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.