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An art exhibit of full-sized portraits of 17 Black Civil War soldiers from across America alongside biographies of their lives before, during, and after the Civil War. Artist and medical illustrator Shayne Davidson has been touring the country with the exhibit titled Seventeen Men since 2012.
This spring, the exhibit is coming to Charleston’s Craik-Patton House, a historic, 19th-century home listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Reporter Shepherd Snyder sat down with Davidson and Craik-Patton House Director Nathan Jones to talk about the exhibit.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Snyder: Shayne, I’m going to start with a couple of questions for you. Can you tell me a little bit about this exhibit? What inspired Seventeen Men in particular? Was there anything in particular you wanted to convey with this exhibit?
Davidson: You’ll have to bear with me, because there’s a little bit of backstory to it. I was working on a family tree for a friend, and she happened to mention that she had this tiny little album of Civil War soldiers that had belonged to her great-grandfather. And she asked me if I was interested in seeing it, even though the men in the album weren’t related to him… So I said, sure, I’d be interested in seeing it, as I also collect vintage photography. And I knew that photos of Black Civil War soldiers were very unusual. They’re quite rare. So I was interested in seeing it, and she photographed all the photos in it. There were 18 photos. She photographed them all and emailed them to me. And as I was looking at them, I thought they were really fascinating photos, even though they’re extremely tiny – about the size of a postage stamp. They’re what’s called a gem photo. And I realized that, as I was looking at them, they were identified. Somebody had written their name on the matte around the photo for each person. So I got intrigued with this little album, and I decided to do a family tree for each man to see if I could kind of give him some background. So when I had some time, I started to do full size portraits of each man, after I had done the genealogical background. And I ended up doing portraits of all the men in the album, and then writing little biographical accounts of their lives. Since then, the people who own the album have donated it to the African American Museum of History and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, where it is on display. I knew it was a rare piece. But now I understand how rare identified Black Civil War soldier photos are. So it wasn’t really planned, it just sort of happened.
Snyder: And speaking of biographies, Shayne, you said that each of the drawings in your art exhibit come with a biography of each depicted person’s life story before, during, and after the Civil War. Can you touch on that a little bit?
Davidson: Well, that was part of what inspired me to do the drawings. I found so much information out about them. Most of the men; not all, but most – there’s one man who isn’t identified. And by the way, the identifications, we’re fairly sure, were done by Captain (William A.) Prickett (of the United States Colored Troops) who owned the album. We believe that the album was a gift to him from the men. We don’t know that for sure, but we think that’s probably how it came to exist. And let me say that, as far as I know, gifts like that were extremely unusual and to have it survive is more unusual still. He apparently wrote the names of the men in the album, which allowed me to identify them and do the research into them. So there are little biographical stories about each man. Some of them were free when they signed up to serve. Several of them were signed up by their slave holders, the slave holder receiving the bounty that would have been paid to the man. And some of them it’s just a little unclear. The men who, for instance, lived in Delaware, a border state. There was one man from Maryland. It’s a little unclear whether they were free or enslaved at the time of signing up. It’s also possible that a couple of the men may have actually left the country through the Underground Railroad and came back to sign up. They may have been in Canada and came back to sign up for the USCT because they signed up in Erie, Pennsylvania, very close to Lake Erie.
Snyder: I’m going to pivot here and ask Nathan: As the director of Charleston’s Craik-Patton House, why was it important for the museum to feature this exhibit?
Jones: Well, with nearly 200,000 African American men serving as soldiers and sailors during the Civil War, it’s a subject that is not often portrayed. And I felt like it would be a wonderful opportunity for us to share this with our community. I believe it was the spring of 2020 here in Charleston, the state set up a historical roadside marker for the 45th United States Colored Troops. It was something that when I first saw it, I was excited that they had placed it there. And when (Executive Director) Drew Gruber approached me from the Civil War Trails Association with Shayne’s exhibit, I knew that the Craik-Patton House was the place for this display. I think it’s an excellent exhibit that does not get the recognition that it deserves. And that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to have it here on display at the Craik-Patton House.