Saturday, November 16, 2013
Bound for Freedom's Light: African Americans and the Civil War
When: through March 2, 2014
The National Portrait Gallery has a large collection of Civil War-related pieces, as one might expect, and as we're now marking the 150th anniversary of the War, they've set up a series of exhibits on different aspects of that conflict. They are displayed in a little niche in the area where the Civil War portraits are hung, and they change each year. Right now, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the focus is on the role that African Americans played in the Civil War.
At the beginning of the conflict, neither side would allow African Americans to take up arms, perhaps in part due to the fact that both North and South believed the War would last only a short time. Sadly, that proved not to be the case, and in 1863, the Union Army accepted African American recruits. Mention is made here of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the focus of the larger show at the National Gallery of Art. I realize that the National Gallery is not part of the Smithsonian, but it would have been nice to see a reference to that show. If someone's looking at this exhibit, they'd probably like to know about the NGA display. I guess it's the librarian in me - always looking for cross-references.
The South did, however, make use of slave labor in non-military roles. This struck me as incredibly awful. To force people to assist their captors in fighting to make sure they can continue to own other human beings is yet another demonstration of how repugnant the institution of slavery was. Many Confederate officers brought their own slaves to serve as body servants, but almost no images of these people exist. One is on display here, the only such photograph in the Gallery's collection. by 1865, things were sufficiently desperate that the South did enlist African-Americans in the Army, but by that time, the writing was on the wall.
Some African Americans escaped from their captors and gained their freedom by crossing the Union lines. Until they were allowed to enlist in the Army, they served in the Navy or in support roles. Women served as nurses. One slave, Abraham, was literally blown to freedom. The Union Army was attempting to break through a Confederate fortification in Vicksburg. Abraham, working in the tunnels underneath, was blown across the Union lines by an explosion and gained his freedom in a spectacular fashion.
There's also a portrait of Major Martin Delaney, the first African-American major to receive a field command. He'd been concerned that, although there were African-American troops, there were no officers to lead them.
Verdict: A good display, especially if you're interested in the Civil War or African-American history. It's small, so easily managed in a lunch hour.