Portraits of Black Soldiers Show Forgotten Faces of Civil War

by Pamela K. Johnson / / Source: NBC News
Quarter-Plate Ambrotype taken between 1863 and 1865. Image depicts a Black Union Army private and his wife and twin daughters. This image has recently become something of an icon of the African American experience during the American Civil War.
Quarter-Plate Ambrotype taken between 1863 and 1865. Image depicts a Black Union Army private and his wife and twin daughters. This image has recently become something of an icon of the African American experience during the American Civil War. Library of Congress / Photos courtesy of Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

A little black boy horsed around an exhibit of old portraits, when he suddenly stopped in front of one of them and said, “Hey, that guy looks like me!”

‘That guy’ was a soldier featured in a show called, “African American Military Portraits from the American Civil War.” The gallery commemorates the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States and runs through Saturday, April 4, at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. It was first on display at the nearby California African American Museum (CAAM) in 2012 and 2013.

“Kids aren’t supposed to be into exhibits — they’re supposed to be into video games,” says Ed Garcia of CAAM, who curated both exhibits. He’s proud that the collection possesses the power to connect a child of today with a forgotten soldier from more than century ago.

The large-format images have been reproduced from original antique photographs, and pay tribute to the roughly 180,000 African-American men who fought for freedom. The war raged on from 1861 to 1865 and, in the middle of it, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Private 103rd Colored Infantry
Private of the 103rd Colored Infantry.Library of Congress / Photos courtesy of Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C

One of the tiniest portraits—only 2” X 3”—led to one of Garcia’s biggest discoveries. “George St. Pierre Brooks. There’s a movie in his life story waiting to be made,” says the curator, who happened upon a letter written to the Royal Canadian Legion by someone asking if it had any information on Brooks. Tapping into such sources as Ancestry.com, newspaper archives, and Google Books, Garcia found that Brooks led an incredibly eventful life.

During the Civil War, he was forced to fight for the Confederacy, until his unit was captured, and he was able to switch sides and fight for the north. After the Civil War, Brooks emigrated to Canada in 1900, and then volunteered to fight in WWI. He went on to perform with P.T. Barnum (pre-circus days), challenging local people to foot races as the traveling show moved from town to town. Brooks sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers all over Europe, before England’s Queen Victoria, and Germany’s Kaiser. Then he volunteered as a civilian cook during the Spanish American War.

To make the pages of history 3D, the exhibit features authentic artifacts, including bullets, chessmen or dominoes the soldiers carved, and uniforms that replicate the originals, which are too fragile to be used. The installation draws from various collections, including the Liljenquist Family Collection and the Gladstone Collection, both housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Additional images came from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Seated Union Sailor
Seated Union Sailor. Ninth-Plate Tintype taken between 1861 and 1865. Image depicts an enlisted rating of the United States Navy.Library of Congress / Photos courtesy of Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

For their service, Black soldiers and sailors of the Civil War took home $10 a month, while their white counterparts earned $13 monthly. Some black men fought in battle, while others had non-combative duty, including feeding and caring for white officers’ horses.

Some of these soldiers left a legacy that reaches beyond the the printed page. One visitor left this comment on the library's website: “As a graduate of Lincoln University in Missouri, I have always been aware of this rich legacy, which set the stage for the creation of this land grant historically black college. A college that was established using the money from the soldier’s wages.”

The Lincoln University website states that at the close of the Civil War, soldiers and officers of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry took steps to establish that educational institution in Jefferson City, Missouri. Members of the 62nd contributed $5,000, and members of the 65th gave $1,400, allowing Lincoln Institute to open its doors in 1866.

As the exhibition comes to a close, Garcia feels a sense of satisfaction with how many people have had an opportunity to look into the faces of the past, and be affirmed by them.

“One older gentleman walked into the exhibit with his family, opened arms and declared, ‘These are my heroes.’ And I told him, ‘They should be everybody’s heroes.”

[The exhibit runs through Saturday, April 4, at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles]

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