George E. Stephens enlisted in Company B on April 30, 1863, and wrote regular letters as a war correspondent to the New York Weekly Anglo-African. This letter — a response to a book review —  was written the month before he enlisted.

March 18,1863.

Mr. Editor

—I was not a little surprised at your Boston correspondent’s, G. L. R/s, severe criticism on Wm. Wells Brown’s new book [online here]. I think he overlooks entirely the purpose for which the work seems to have been written:—a text book, a book for the times, an argument for the race which cannot be refuted. It should be circulated all over the country, to aid in the great and good work of dispelling the sin-begotten, infatuated notion—negro inferiority. The animus of G. L. R.’s criticism lies in this, that there are so many men of genius and distinction “left out,” such as Stephen Smith, Joseph Turpin, and a few others, or perhaps G. L. R. has his own crow to pick with this book. This principal objection to the “Black Man,” that everybody was not recorded within its pages, has cumulated in a most intense feeling. I have just seen a letter from a well-known colored gentleman who says, “there is a prejudice against the work here, created by those who are ‘left out,’ and what have those left out ever done to give them a place in this or any other book?” This shows the little appreciation that colored men are capable of placing upon the writings of their own race. Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Mr. Brown’s book is the best argument ever put forth in defence of the negro.” It is a marvel that Mr. Brown has achieved so much with such scanty means.

Slavery and caste has so stultified our progressive tendencies, and the “demands of society” upon us for scientific or literary attainments have been so limited that we have been compelled for the sake of daily bread to devote ourselves to plebeian avocations, and if perchance distinction were achieved, it must be traced to fortuitous circumstances with scarce a hope of honor or emolument, and without the stimulus of manly competition in the arena of letters. Is it a dishonor to the race that there are few great men amongst us? No! But it is an honor to the race that Mr. Brown has “with his limited material given to the American people a work, which tells them that we possess the foundation material, on which we are about to build a superstructure of pure Christian civilization. Your Boston correspondent predicts that some person in the future will hand down to posterity his fame by doing or undoing what Mr. Brown has done in his work. This coming biographer could be famed for nothing, but his folly. The deeds and achievements for which the negro is destined, will wrap the terrible and humiliating history of the past two hundred years, in a brilliant wreath of martial and intellectual glory.

But Mr. Brown’s book does not claim to be a biography, but a sketch book of our most distinguished characters, and he transcended no  prerogative, when he presented a strong array of characters. But our critic will not be comforted. He in almost the one and same breath complains that Mr. Brown gives too many names—too much pork for a shilling, and denounces the book, because he left out such remarkable geniuses as Stephen Smith, Joseph Turpin & Co. As a text book it is invaluable, and it has been pronounced by intelligent men, white and colored, to be the best argument in favor of the black man’s ability yet published. Did G. L. R. read the sketch of Miss C. L. Forten with those gems of prose and poetic offshoots of her pen?’ a sketch which of itself is worth the price of the book. Did he forget to peruse the sketch of Benjamin Banneker, a literary effort which, I think, has done our great mathematician better justice than any other sketch? The intrinsic value of the work lies in the fact that he has brought out so many new characters. Frederick Douglass, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Nat Turner, and such men have been so frequently written about, that their names have become household words. But the young artists, Wm. H. Simpson, Edwin M. Bannister, with all their genius were never known to the public, till the “Black Man” made its appearance. Prof. Wilson and Alex. Crummell are fortunate in having Mr. Brown as their exponent. This work contains the first sketch ever published of Crispus Attucks though his name and deeds have often been in print. Mr. Brown exhibits the genius of nearly every one of his characters, either by quoting some of their writing or speeches, and this forms an interesting feature in the many beauties of his most important work.

G. E. Stephens