The third in a series of exhibitions marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, “Bound for Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War,” opened at the National Portrait Gallery on February 1. The installation uses vintage photographs and historic prints to focus on the roles that individual African Americans played during the course of the conflict.
According to Ann Shumard, NPG’s senior curator of photographs and the exhibition curator, the starting point for the show was the desire to “highlight the richness of NPG’s own collection,” rather than borrow the majority of works from other institutions.
The exhibition includes images of well-known individuals such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth (right). Rather than highlighting their familiar prewar abolitionist activities, however, the images and accompanying label text in this installation draw attention to the sitters’ wartime efforts, such as Douglass’s pressuring Lincoln on the question of emancipation, Tubman serving as an army scout and spy, and Truth assisting refugees from slavery and recruiting black men to join the Union army.
The exhibition draws its title from the lyrics of a song that Truth performed at recruiting meetings as a tribute to the First Michigan Colored Regiment, in which she proclaimed,
We are going out of slavery, we are bound for freedom’s light;
We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight!
While these famous figures certainly merit a place in the exhibition, Shumard felt that it was crucial to have less recognizable names included as well. As she explains, “the focus here needs to be on the experience of ordinary people, the less well-known figures who both affected and were affected by the events of the era.”
Perhaps the most riveting image in the show is that of Gordon (right), who escaped enslavement on a Louisiana plantation to join a black regiment and whose scarred back became a powerful testament to the brutality of slavery. Also represented in a photographic portrait is Robert Smalls, the South Carolina bondsman who freed himself and his family by seizing control of a Confederate ship and delivering is safely into Union hands.
The NPG collection even turned out to contain a fascinating story that was unknown to our staff. While sorting through some photographs for a different purpose, Shumard happened across a carte-de-visite photograph of an African American man known as Abraham. The portrait had been acquired some years ago in an album of cartes de visite but had not been individually researched.
When Shumard investigated, she discovered the amazing story of a slave literally blown to freedom. Union soldiers tunneling below Confederate defenses in the siege of Vicksburg (1863) had detonated powerful explosives that buried in debris seven enslaved workers used by Confederates to dig countershafts, but lofted an eighth—identified only as Abraham (below)—clear across the Union lines, where he recovered from his injuries and joined the Union war effort.
Moving beyond these amazing biographies, Shumard discovered that there were some facets of the African American experience that could not be told using conventional portraiture. To cover these aspects, she turned to historic prints that portray a scene or series of events.
One of Shumard’s favorite pieces in the show is a print called (in the parlance of the era), Stampede among the Negroes in Virginia—Their Arrival at Fortress Monroe.(below). While researching this exhibition, Shumard read a New York Times Magazine article about the fugitive slaves who were granted protection as “contraband of war” by General Benjamin F. Butler at Union-held Fort Monroe in Virginia beginning in May 1861.
The article mentioned that a print had appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in June of that year showing vignettes of refugees from slavery arriving at the fort. Shumard was delighted to discover that such a print existed and was available for acquisition, as she had been struggling with how to include the events at Fort Monroe in the exhibition. “We have a carte de visite of Butler in our collection, but that’s a poor way to tell this particular story, with just a picture of a white Union officer. And there were no formal portraits made of the Fort Monroe ‘contrabands’ themselves.”
Similarly, the story of the July 1863 draft riots in New York could only be told through periodicals, rather than traditional portraiture, as the participants were generally anonymous. This gruesome and little-known chapter of the Civil War era, when antidraft rioters looted and burned the Colored Orphan’s Asylum and attacked African Americans in their homes and on the streets, is represented in the exhibition by a wood engraving from an August 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.. “The image [in the engraving] of a man being lynched is grim,” explains Shumard, “but we needed to include it in order to convey the African American experience more fully.”
There were just a few stories that Shumard was not able to tell with images from the NPG collection, such as the heroic performance of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment, the first black regiment to be organized in a northern state. According to Shumard, “we have a carte de visite of the commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, but that doesn’t capture the experience of the African Americans who served with him.”
Shumard was able to secure a loan from a private individual of a chromolithograph showing the regiment’s storming of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina. Other loans to the exhibition include a group portrait of emancipated slaves that was sold to raise funds for their education; a print entitled Come and Join Us Brothers that was used to recruit black soldiers; and a reproduction of a photograph of an unidentified slave/body servant in Confederate uniform with a Confederate captain, which Shumard included to broach the controversial and historically inconclusive topic of black participation in the Confederate cause.
In putting together this exhibition, Shumard tried to find a balance between the content she wanted to include in order to paint as complete a picture as possible and the objects that were available. “Obviously we can’t be encyclopedic in an exhibition of this size,” she reflects, “and we can’t cover every aspect of the African American experience. But I am pleased that we were able to find such compelling representations to flesh out this fascinating story.”
—Miriam Szubin, NPG Department of Education
Sojourner Truth / Mathew Brady Studio / Albumen silver print, c. 1864 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gordon / Mathew Brady Studio, Copy after: William D. McPherson Copy after: Mr. Oliver / Albumen silver print, 1863 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Abraham / Unidentified Artist / Albumen silver print, 1863 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
“Stampede Among the Negroes in Virginia” / Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper / Wood engraving on paper, 1861 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Ann M. Shumard