“Die Free”: Black Soldiers in the Civil War

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Surgeon's Certificate for  Dick Parker Wills 1903

Surgeon’s Certificate for Dick Parker Wills 1903

More than 200,000 African men served in the Union Army’s United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. Among them were James Wills, Mack Wills, Dick (Wills) Parker, Andy Wills and Richard Wills, who fled the Tennessee plantation of Edmund Wills to join the 4th Heavy Field Artillery of Columbus, Kentucky.

In Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale acclaimed journalist Cheryl Wills explores the story of her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, and his companions. In unearthing her family history, she uncovers the discrepancies, disparities, and decisions “great and small, careless and deliberate” that impacted the treatment and care of black soldiers.

Black soldiers died from disease at a disproportionate rate to their white compatriots, and, as documented in Die Free, their higher burden of mortality continued after the end of the war. Evidence from medical records and surgeon’s certificates indicates that many black soldiers also struggled to have their conditions taken seriously and to be granted pensions.

We are delighted to be welcoming Cheryl Wills to the New York Academy of Medicine on December 10. She will appear in discussion with the renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, to explore the experiences of her family, and reflect on the ongoing legacy of the discrimination they suffered.

Discover more about Die Free here. In addition to their service as soldiers, African Americans also acted as nurses, surgeons and hospital workers during the Civil War. Some of these contributions are explored in Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries, an exhibition at the National Library of Medicine.