Bound for Freedom's Light
An Interview with Ann Shumard
The Civil War Trust had the opportunity to meet with Senior Curator, Ann Shumard of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. The National Portrait Gallery's new exhibit, Bound for Freedom's Light: African Americans and the Civil War, features many remarkable images of African-Americans in the Civil War. Five videos accompany this article.
Civil War Trust: Tell us more about the Bound for Freedom’s Light exhibit. What made this such an attractive subject to feature?
Ann Shumard: Bound for Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War is the latest in a series of exhibitions organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to mark the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. When the Portrait Gallery’s curators and historians were considering the topics to be featured in our Civil War-themed exhibitions, there was no question that a show devoted to the roles played by African Americans throughout the war was an absolute must. As curator, it is my hope that visitors will come away from this exhibition with a better understanding of the multiple ways in which African American men and women actively contributed to the war effort and influenced the outcome of that wrenching conflict.
Civil War Trust: Tell us about some of your favorite images in this new National Portrait Gallery exhibition.
Ann Shumard: Bound for Freedom’s Light includes a wide variety of vintage images ranging from carte de visite photographs to wood engravings from the pages of Harper’s Weekly to handsome lithographic prints—each of which contributes an important story to the exhibition’s narrative. One of my favorite works in the show is a double-page spread from the June 8, 1861 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Through a sequence of vignettes created by Leslie’s “Special Artist,” the spread illustrates the dramatic events unfolding at the Union-held Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, where fugitives from slavery were finding protection under General Benjamin Butler as “contraband of war.” Another standout in the exhibition is a beautiful chromolithograph that represents a company of U.S. Colored Troops. It was issued in Philadelphia as a recruiting poster by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments and carries the admonition “COME AND JOIN US BROTHERS.” There is also a remarkable photograph of eight emancipated slaves—five children and three adults—that was sold in the North to raise funds for Louisiana’s first free schools for liberated slaves.
Civil War Trust: Of the images in this exhibition were any of these widely known to the Civil War-era populace?
Ann Shumard: In all likelihood, the images in the exhibition that would have reached the largest Civil War-era audiences would have been those reproduced in the pages of the nation’s two most popular illustrated newspapers, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper—each of which reportedly enjoyed a circulation of 100,000 or more during the war years. Bound for Freedom’s Light includes the previously mentioned spread from Frank Leslie’s as well as illustrated pages from three issues of Harper’s Weekly that represent the former slave known as Gordon; members of the First Louisiana Native Guards; and scenes from the 1863 New York City draft riots, including one vignette that shows the lynching of William Jones. The photographs that feature portraits of Benjamin Butler, former slaves Gordon and Abraham, and the group of eight emancipated slaves from Louisiana also circulated among the populace during the war years, as did the 1864 wood engraving issued to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation.
Civil War Trust: One of the better known images in the exhibition is a photograph of an ex-slave named Gordon. Tell us about this image and more about Gordon’s Civil War story.
Ann Shumard: Gordon’s story was a remarkable one. According to contemporary accounts, including an article in the July 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, Gordon escaped from bondage on Louisiana cotton plantation in March 1863. Pursued by his slave master and a pack of dogs, Gordon eluded capture and after traveling some eighty miles found safety with Union troops encamped at Baton Rouge. Before he enlisted in a black regiment, Gordon underwent a medical examination that revealed horrific scarring on his back—the result of a vicious whipping by his former overseer. New Orleans-based photographers William D. McPherson and his partner Mr. Oliver, who were in camp at the time, produced a carte de visite portrait of Gordon showing the mass of welts and ridges covering his back. Gordon enlisted as a sergeant, reportedly with the Second Louisiana Native Guards, and was said to have fought bravely in the Union assault on Port Hudson in May 1863. Unfortunately, nothing further is known about his life.
Civil War Trust: Did this image of Gordon have any impact on the Northern populace?
Ann Shumard: McPherson and Oliver’s photograph of Gordon created a sensation when it reached the public, and immediately became a searing indictment of slavery’s brutality. One of the cartes de visite found its way to the North via Samuel K. Towle, a surgeon serving with the Thirtieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers encamped at Baton Rouge. Towle—who may have been the doctor who examined Gordon—forwarded the photograph to Dr. W.J. Dale, Surgeon-General of Massachusetts, noting, “Few sensation writers ever depicted worse punishments than this man must have received.” Gordon’s carte de visite also found its way to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who described it in the June 12, 1863 issue of the Liberator and noted that many “had desired a copy.” And a writer for the New York Independent declared, “This Card Portrait should be multiplied by 100,000 and scattered over the States. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe can not approach, because it tells the story to the eye.” In fact, the photograph of Gordon’s “Scourged Back” was widely copied and distributed by a number of photographers, including Mathew Brady, who produced the version that is included in the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition.
Civil War Trust: Have there been any new discoveries of Civil War-era images depicting African Americans?
Ann Shumard: Actually, one such discovery was made within the National Portrait Gallery’s own collection. Back in 1979, the museum acquired a carte de visite album as an example of the kinds of photograph albums that were assembled during the Civil War. When the album’s contents were later catalogued, one of the more than 200 cartes de visite it contained was described simply as “Unidentified African American Man.” I came across this carte de visite while assembling objects for potential use in the exhibition and was immediately intrigued. Hoping to find more information about the subject, I consulted the original handwritten index at the front of the carte de visite album and discovered that the photograph had been described as “Negro blown out of Fort at Vicksburg.” Well, thanks to the wonders of the internet and a lucky combination of key words, I learned that our mystery man was Abraham, the man who was “blown to freedom.”
Civil War Trust: We certainly can’t leave the story there. Please tell us what else you were able to discover about the man in this photograph.
Ann Shumard: Abraham’s escape from slavery is certainly one of the more remarkable stories to come out of the Civil War. In 1863, after failed attempts by the Union army to take the southern stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, General Ulysses Grant initiated a siege of the city that lasted from May 22 to July 4. During the final days of that siege, Union soldiers tunneled beneath earthen fortifications erected by Confederate forces and twice detonated powerful explosives. During the second blast, on July 1, seven enslaved workers used by the Confederates to dig countershafts were buried by debris. But one man—identified only as Abraham—was lofted into the air by the explosion and fell to earth behind the Union lines. Though badly bruised and shaken, Abraham eventually recovered from his injuries and enjoyed a brief period of celebrity. The August 8, 1863 issue Harper’s Weekly included an account of his astonishing flight to liberty, accompanied by a portrait sketch. Abraham’s notoriety must have attracted the interest of the photographer who created at least two different views of the former slave that circulated as cartes de visite. One version of the portrait is the cdv that I found in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. A variant image from the same sitting has been reproduced on the National Park Service marker at the site of the Mine Explosion at Vicksburg.
Civil War Trust: Is the National Portrait Gallery considering any additional exhibitions of Civil War related photos and images?
Ann Shumard: Yes. In July 2014, the National Portrait Gallery will open the exhibition Grant and Lee, which explores the rivalry that is among the most memorable in American military history. Curated by Portrait Gallery historian David C. Ward, Grant and Lee will include historic photographs, paintings, documents, and associative objects. Also on view at the Portrait Gallery from now until mid-2016 is Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals. This exhibition features twenty, modern albumen silver prints made from original Brady carte de visite negatives in the museum’s Frederick Hill Meserve Collection.
For information about all the National Portrait Gallery’s current and upcoming exhibitions, please visit the museum’s website at www.npg.si.edu.