A Stirring Song Sung Heroic
INTRODUCTION BY WILLIAM EARLE WILLIAMS
African American Civil War Soldiers
The exhibition and publication A Stirring Song Sung Heroic: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom, 1619 to 1865 is presented to encourage discussions about slavery and citizenship rights while broadening our understanding of how blacks participated in the Civil War.
On May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders 143, establishing a Bureau of Colored Troops in the Adjutant General?s Office to recruit and organize African American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. With this order, all African American regiments were designated as United States Colored Troops (USCT). The battle sites and training camps for these troops are designated USCT and when known, their specific regiment is listed.
Until the 1989 release of Glory, a feature-length motion picture about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, it was not well-known that black troops served in the Civil War. More than 180,000 blacks served in the Army along with 20,000 in the Navy from 1861?1865. Serving in segregated units with white officers in command, these men made significant contributions to the Union victory. Blacks fought in 449 engagements and 39 major battles from 1862 to 1865. They fought in trans-Mississippi, Mississippi Valley, and Atlantic Coast theaters of the War. By War’s end 12 percent of the total Union land forces consisted of black troops. This number is equal to the total number of effective Confederate soldiers still present for duty in April of 1865.
Presently, there is no comprehensive pictorial record of these sites. The photographs of the most prominent sites are exhibited and published here, including the battlefields of Port Hudson, Morris Island, Fort Pillow, Jenkins’ Ferry, Poison Spring, and Appomattox. These are the places where black troops contributed with distinction and valor to the final Union victory.
Training camps like Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and Camp William Penn, Pennsylvania are pictured because these are the sites where these men became soldiers. My photographs honor their memory, give a precise description of the place, and provide a visual means to understand that it was in these places and landscapes that the moral and legal groundwork for the modern black Civil Rights Movement – and the concept of civil rights for all Americans – was established.
Too often the historical and artistic legacy of black accomplishment is ignored. As an artist, the memory of these solders has inspired my artistic imagination. The ground they fought on is sacred and an inspiration for all Americans. These sites dispel the myth that blacks were given their citizenship and rights after the war without having fought for and earned them. These places confirm that 38,178 black soldiers gave their lives – training, fighting, and dying on those sites. Blacks serving as soldiers during the Civil War shaped their own futures, and America’s history.
Slavery in the Western Hemisphere
The visual culture of slavery in the United States and the Western Hemisphere cannot be fully understood without study of its origins in the West Indies. The plantation agriculture of monoproduction, including use of slave labor and opposition to it there and in Britain, created a unique history. Photographs from this geographical region allow a fuller understanding of the culture of slavery and the resistance it generated in the British colonies both in the New World and their successors.
Photography provides a visual means to reconnect these places to our collective memory. When this body of work is presented in a carefully orchestrated sequence in the exhibition and publication A Stirring Song Sung Heroic, with accompanying artifacts and artworks based in history, a new level of understanding is possible. Many historians consider the period from 1787, when the Articles of the Confederation were revised to become the American Constitution, to 1865, when the 13th Amendment that ended legalized slavery was ratified, to be the second American Revolution.
The Atlantic triangle of trade was dominated with some overlap by the Portuguese from 1515 to 1600, by the Dutch from 1600 to 1670, by the French from 1670 to 1713, and by the British from 1713 to 1807. The British domination of the trade triangle is the most relevant to the United States. The move from the cultivation of tobacco to sugar cane in the West Indies, and John Rolfe’s 1611 importation of tobacco seeds from Trinidad, was to have a profound effect on the future development of agriculture based on slave labor in both regions.
The growth and the presence of a large slave population engaged in the cultivation and curing of tobacco tied the growth of slavery to the rise of the plantation system in Jamestown and its expansion into the surrounding region. In the British West Indies, a similar change was to occur in a population shift from a society that was 90 percent free (white) to one that was 90 percent slave (African) after the sugar revolution. This transformation reached a critical stage in 1628 when the total exportation of tobacco to Britain from St. Kitts and Barbados was 100,000 pounds, versus 500,000 pounds exported in 1627 by the Jamestown Colony. This change in agricultural production in both areas was to create a stratified society in which there was no social mobility between black and white. “Free” and “slave” were legal definitions and “white” and “black” became social distinctions.
John Jefferson, along with Thomas Warner, was one of the settler founders of plantation agriculture on St. Kitts in 1623. This was made possible by the defeat and massacre of the native Indian population in 1626 at Bloody Creek. It is believed that one of Jefferson’s relatives was an ancestor of President Thomas Jefferson. The migration of West Indian planters and the plantation system to the British North American colonies was an expression of British dominance in the Atlantic trade triangle and the greater profits to be garnered through the cultivation of larger tracts of land.
The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney assured that what had been a minor cash crop would become the most important agricultural product of the former British North American colonies. This led to an explosive growth in the domestic and international slave trade and the use of slave labor throughout the region. The South and slavery would forever be intertwined. The resulting imbalance in population between “free” and “slave” populations led to harsh laws and a climate of oppression for the slave population.
The indignities of slavery resulted in organized resistance from both the slave and free population. Congress made it a crime to aid escaping slaves to placate Southern interests by passing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The passage of this law and the War of 1812 with Britain established Canada as the Canaan for escaping slaves. After the War of 1812, thousands of enslaved and many free African Americans fled the United States and made their way to Canada where they could live as free citizens.
The Underground Railroad Made Visible
The Underground Railroad is one of history’s finest symbols of the struggle against the institution of slavery. This invisible railroad was composed of men and women, blacks and whites, and people of all ages. They put their moral beliefs ahead of liberty and personal property. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, this already secretive and illegal activity became even more clandestine.
Enslaved people seeking freedom – and their allies – adopted the names and symbols of the railroad to safely travel this secretive route. The conductors and stationmasters along the many routes of this passage adopted the name of the most technologically advanced form of transportation available during the 19th century – railroading. The advent of this form of transit was a national phenomenon that had a profound effect on national transportation. The connections forged throughout the country via the railroad, however, had the ironic effect of increasing the division between the states.
As the economy grew, Americans experienced prosperity in unparalleled numbers. Border states from Delaware to Missouri experienced this turbulence as traffic on the Underground Railroad increased with passengers seeking freedom tickets away from the slaveholding regions. The border states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and the states immediately to the north of them, developed a strong abolitionist identity from the 1830s on. New York and Michigan, with their proximity to Canada and abundant land and water routes, have left this region with a rich heritage of places and buildings to make visible this invisible railroad.
The photographs in this exhibition show places both well-known and obscure that played a part in the history of the Underground Railroad?from the Caribbean to the Deep South to the shores of Lake Ontario. Two of the most famous “conductors” on the Underground Railroad were Harriet Tubman and John Brown. Both lived in Upstate New York and maintained stations on their properties in Auburn and in North Elba. Today, both are larger-than-life historical figures whose importance in American and regional history is well established.
Few people today have ever heard of Upstate New York conductors and stationmasters John W. Jones of Elmira, Grace Wilson of Cazenovia, or Gerrit Smith of Peterboro. James Walker, an African American, was a well-known stationmaster and conductor in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. These are a few of the mostly unknown conductors who played important roles in both the operation of the Underground Railroad and the creation of local support for its operation. The station stops on the Underground Railroad suffer from a similar fate as that of the conductors – anonymity. Some stops were well-known, however, including the Hosanna Meeting House located in Pennsylvania near the Maryland/Delaware state lines, and Levi Coffin’s home in Fountain City, Indiana.
The act of researching and locating these sites was the starting point for my creative investigation. The resulting photographs have become more than just documents. I have responded to the vernacular landscapes by using a variety of camera techniques including sharp focus, depth of field, and medium- and large-format negatives to heighten the metaphoric content of the images. A careful reading of the photographs will reveal a rich material world as well as another that can only be hinted at because of the silence of these places. It is my hope that this aesthetic approach will enable the viewer to make psychological connections to these highly charged and storied places.