Here is an image with much to tell about matters of race and memory in contemporary America. I am confident that just a few years ago, its subject matter - a black American soldier menacing a fallen white enemy with a bayonet - would have been deemed too provocative and risky for a venerable manufacturer of high end toy soldiers to bring to an American market. Yet last year, the 115-year-old W. Britains company did just that.
True confessions time, here. I am a collector of matte finished toy soldiers in this scale and from this company, though I concentrate on the American Civil War period and not, as it is known in the international collector trade, the American War of Independence. This is a reflection of the expense of this hobby and lack of display space rather than lack of interest in other periods. Sometimes I think the ideal job for me would be dioramist in residence at some well endowed and indulgent museum. I've had this interest since I was in kindergarten.
I was prompted to think about this two-figure set from Britains AWI range while engaged in this thread at Civil War Memory. Kevin Levin's special area of interest is Petersburg's Battle of the Crater. He and some of his readers drew attention to the utter absence of the many black soldiers who fought there from depictions of this battle marketed by Conte Collectibles, another high end toy soldier company and one I have patronized in the past. Conte also has an extensive plastic play set business and its Civil War range represents the Crater. Although Conte has produced four excellent African American figures from the colored 54th Massachusetts infantry regiment, none of these are reproduced in plastic and are not included part of the 192 figures in its Crater play set, or Conte's other two plastic play sets compatible with this item.
Another true confession. I own hundreds of these matte finished ACW toy soldiers after a decade of collecting, and yet I have yet to purchase either Conte's 54th MA figures or the few (inferior) sculpts of this unit produced a number of years ago by W. Britains when it was under different ownership. It is not that I do not like them - Ken Osen, who now is head sculptor for W. Britians, did the Conte figures and they are excellent - but there was always another group of toy soldiers that I wanted more, and I rationalize waiting on these because there were fewer situations when I could deploy them in a diorama, as colored troops came into active service at the midpoint in the war. Since this collection is a substantial drain on my discretionary income, I've had to make hard choices about what investments to make.
These justifications don't really cut it. I don't have the space to set up the dioramas of my dreams and the figures are many ranks deep in an upstairs bookcase in my home. At the very heart of the matter, this collection is an expensive adult hobby playing out a boyhood fantasy, and none of my toy Civil War soldiers (or playmates) back then were black, either. Except for a brief period when I was a teen-aged Civil War Reenacter in a Confederate cavalry troop based in upstate New York, my orientation has always been toward the Union perspective. But I am still left with a quandary and second guessing my excuses.
I cannot speak for others who collect these kinds of figures. I do know that the ACW period tends to do well in markets East of the Mississippi and has less of a draw elsewhere. I can only assume that the vast majority of collectors are male and with sufficient disposable income to lay out the considerable sums required every year to feed this rather addictive habit. The only colored regiment from the American Civil War that the general public is aware of is the 54th Massachusetts, made famous by the movie "Glory", and that is why it alone is represented in the small number of figures available that depict black soldiers. And though I am an exception, as a rule there is far more interest both the reenacting and the toy soldier collecting communities in confederate subject matter.
The American War of Independence, on the other hand, has a stronger international market for toy soldier collectors, particularly in the British Commonwealth. I do not know the sales generated for W. Britians by the three figures of the 1st Rhode Island Light Infantry, a unit brigaded with the New Jersey troops commanded by my ancestor Elias Dayton at Yorktown, but they clearly were seen as appropriate subject matter. The light company of this regiment, which these figures actually depict, was part of Lafayette's command and fought in the assault of Redoubt #10 along with my ancestor Aaron Ogden. The regiment had several segregated companies of black, mulatto and Indian soldiers, thought African American soldiers were integrated in some regiments and militia companies during the war. Others fought for their freedom in British and Hessian units.
Collectors of British military figures, particularly those depicting the Victorian era, are accustomed to depictions of Tommy Atkins facing racially diverse adversaries. W. Britains has a new Zulu War line in both traditional glossy and matte finish that looks to be extremely popular with collectors. The Zulu line in particular takes great pains to accurately depict the various regiments in Cetshwayo's' impis without round-eyed caricature. I would love to collect these figures, but I do not. I stick with the American Civil War. It is not worth risking a divorce by expanding my habit to other periods and the size of my collection thereby.
So we come back to the question of why the Civil War regiments on my shelves are still monochrome when there are several appropriate figures available to represent those African Americans who fought in blue? And would spending the $90 bucks or so it would take to rectify that omission really buy me indulgence? I am sure it is not so simple, though I am left uneasy about its implications. What we learn from our innocent play as children creates assumptions and blind spots that even as reflective adults we may not readily recognize. When I played "Civil War" as a boy, I did so in my own image. Perhaps it is that simple. All I know for sure is that this stuff is hard.