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Civil War Photography Exhibit at California African American Museum Is a Tribute to Black Soldiers

Black Union Army private and his wife and twin daughters
Black Union Army private and his wife and twin daughters
Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress)

Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln are a few of the major figures people think of when it comes to the Civil War. But you won't find any of these people featured in the California African American Museum's new exhibit.

Instead, "African American Military Portraits from the American Civil War" presents photographs of black soldiers and sailors -- slaves as well as free men who volunteered to fight -- and comes in time to help mark the 150th anniversary of the war.

The Liljenguist family donated the photographs to the Library of Congress under the condition they be available to the public for free use. After hearing of the donation, Edward Garcia, the museum's exhibit department supervisor, decided to create a show and selected images he felt were most compelling.

Unidentified Union private from "B" Company, 103rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry.
Unidentified Union private from "B" Company, 103rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry.
Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress)

Many people know about African Americans fighting in the Civil War from Glory, the film featuring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, about an all-black infantry getting the chance to fight at the front lines of the war.

Still, Garcia feels that "when most people think of the Civil War they just think of slaves and they don't realize a lot of these guys were volunteers from the north...I wanted to show the pictures of the guys who have been completely forgotten."

Many of the African-American volunteers were successful business owners. One of the photographs features John N. Sharper, who worked as a printer before joining the military in Rhode Island. Being a printer at the time was a prestigious job that required a lot of education, but Sharper joined the army anyway.

Seated Union Sailor
Seated Union Sailor
Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress)

Garcia also explains many soldiers were also slaves recruited from the south who had been freed and then volunteered to join. But that wasn't always the case, as he found one story of an African-American sailor who joined the Union Navy when he saw their ship sail by the plantation he was on and decided to jump in the water and swim for it.

Garcia's favorite photograph is that of a Union Calvary sergeant (below) sitting for his portrait. "He looks extremely confident but at the same time he looks calm. Those are all of the elements that make a [good] non-commission sergeant in an army," says Garcia.

Union Cavalry Sergeant
Union Cavalry Sergeant
Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress)

The exhibit also includes artifacts, reproductions of Union uniforms, and a display showing how the soldier's portraits would be taken, including a themed backdrop with the American Flag waving in the wind and a soldier posing for what is probably the first photograph ever taken of him.

But the main focus of the show is the photographs themselves, which put a face to the thousands who sacrificed to help the future of a country that, at the time, still didn't full embrace them.

Photograph was taken by photographer Enoch Long at the Union post of Benton Barracks in Missouri
Photograph was taken by photographer Enoch Long at the Union post of Benton Barracks in Missouri
Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress)

The exhibit runs through Jan. 20, and the museum's annual gala is tomorrow, Oct. 6.

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