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.
The exhibition inevitably focuses on how white people defined the parameters and meaning of African American existence. Opening with Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, a Union leader who had to grapple with the status of slaves fleeing the Confederacy to Union protection, the exhibition recalls one of the pivotal moments of the Civil War. In 1861, three slaves escaped to Union-held Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., where Butler was in command. When their Confederate owner demanded their return, citing the noxious 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Butler invented a neat legal solution: Defining them as “contraband of war,” the Union general refused to hand them over, but at the cost of keeping them in a dubious existential category.
“Butler became very defensive of what came to be known as his contraband,” Shumard says.
The slave Gordon also arrived as “contraband” but then enlisted in a black Union regiment. A page from the July 4, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly shows his transformation. On either side of a reproduction of the infamous image of his wounded back are before-and-after images showing him as he arrived, ragged, to the safety of Union protection, and later neatly dressed in his military uniform. Several of the most fascinating images in the exhibition underscore similar ideas of transformation, the malleability of character and appearance, as though African Americans are not only emerging as a new subject for photography, but morphing even as the lens tries to pin them down.