The faces tell the tale

The exhibit at the Central Library brings African-Americans who served in the American Civil War much needed recognition. 

By Jorge Belon, Managing Editor 

WALKING THROUGH HISTORY - "African-American Military Portraits from the American Civil War" reveals hidden heroes.Katia Raguan / Special to the Star

WALKING THROUGH HISTORY – “African-American Military Portraits from the American Civil War” reveals hidden heroes.

A full-bearded African-American sergeant sits in his full Union cavalry uniform with his saber sleeping on his lap. Across from him is a picture of a private who is no older than 16. The young soldier wears a typical Army uniform and has a weary expression; it’s looks almost as if he is ready to fight and possibly die. Parallel to him is a sergeant, who is a part of an artillery regiment. Unlike the first two, however, his name has not been lost: Sgt. Tom Strawn.

These are just three portraits out of the many in the compelling “African-American Military Portraits from the American Civil War” in the Getty Gallery in the Central Library until April 4. The exhibition opened on Jan. 20; it is provided by the California African American Museum (CAAM) from selected images from The Library of Congress and other collections.

CAAM Exhibition Supervisor Edward Garcia said, “The African American Military Portrait exhibit is not an exhibit of the war in general, but more focused upon the forgotten individual soldiers who fought the war,” Garcia told the Central Library before the exhibit opened in a filmed interview. 

There are pictures of faces of soldiers, cooks, officers, drummer boys, and doctor assistants from every military branch in service during the Civil War. The ages of these proud men vary, from 40s to right before their teenage years. 

As one stops to look at the cavalry sergeant that stares through the portrait with his battle-scarred eyes, a person is greeted by two chilling songs playing in the background: “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “Ashokan Farewell.”

“We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” popular among slaves, which many of these men once were. Hoping to climb the “ladder” out of their captivity they found themselves elevated to fighting in battles at the deadliest war in American history. “Ashokan Farewell” was composed 117 years after the Civil War, but become associated with the war after Ken Burns’s documentary, “The Civil War” used it.

The songs almost make the silent voices of Sgt. Strawin and the boy private echo off the walls.

For many years their struggle was lost and hidden deep in the torn up, dusty pages of history. It is 150 years since the last musket was fired in the Civil War, and only recently have there been exhibits, books and movies like “Glory” (The story of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry) that chronicle their efforts.

Most of the pictures of the men in the exhibit have no names, although there are a few whose identities survive like Sgt. Strawin. One that will linger in the mind is a young boy named Nathan Jones. There is no history of him after the war. In the picture, he is wearing a union infantry cap. He looks sad, but we have no way of knowing his story; we can only speculate. 

The story of Strawin has also been lost. He was a Sgt. in Company B, of the 3rd U.S. Colored Troops Heavy Artillery Regiment, after that there is nothing.

For most of these men there is almost no way of knowing if they survived or died during the war, but exhibitions such as these at least bring something of their memories back to life.

The exhibit is free and open the same hours as the library: Monday-Sunday (Monday-Thursday 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday 9:30 a.m.-5:30 and on Sunday 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.)

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