‘Bound for Freedom’s light: African Americans and the Civil War’

FromThe Washington Post:

It’s easy to believe that when Abraham Lincoln drafted his second inaugural address in 1865 — writing that if God willed it, the struggle against slavery would continue until “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” — he had in mind a famous photograph made two years earlier. The image shows a former slave, known only as “Gordon,” who had escaped bondage in Louisiana to freedom behind Union lines at Baton Rouge. The man appeared seated, with his face and torso turned away from the camera, showing a gruesome and abstract welter of lash marks and lacerations on his back. The photograph was one of the most convulsive images of the 19th century, circulated widely by abolitionists, reproduced and disseminated not just through popular magazines but on visiting cards, small reproductions on card stock that could be purchased and collected in albums. As Frank Goodyear writes in a recently published Smithsonian book, “Photography Changes Everything,” the image not only galvanized antislavery sentiments, but it “also inspired many free blacks in the North to enlist.”

The photograph appears in a small National Portrait Gallery exhibition, “Bound for Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War,” which, curator Ann Shumard said, is designed “to drive home the point that African Americans weren’t simply passive observers on the sidelines of this conflict.” The show includes photography, engravings, bookplates and drawings, and occupies a niche gallery sandwiched between two larger long-term displays of Civil War material. The modest nature of the display contrasts sharply with the sumptuous oil paintings and traditional sculpture in the main galleries, a visual analog to the complicated way in which African Americans were caught up in the war, yet marginal to its outcome and direction. They fought, and they were fought over, but it was white men who wore the epaulettes, called the shots and ended up being memorialized in full-length, heroic portraits of power.

More here. (Note: At least one daily post throughout February will be devoted to African American History Month)