Echoes of Reconstruction: Free Exhibit Tells the Story of Black Soldiers in the Civil War

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog. 

The last year has been a difficult one for me medically. My doctor suggested that I take up walking as one remedy for my ills, and I decided to combine strolls around the neighborhood with long walks at places where I can learn about our Reconstruction Era history. I visited Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s environs in coastal Maine, dozens of Civil War statues in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and riverfront fortifications near Washington.

One of my favorite walks was in New York City’s Greenwich Village where I took in a new outdoor exhibit on Black Civil War soldiers. The Kimmel Windows Gallery at New York University has a new exhibit; The Black Civil War Soldier, that is on view until Feb. 28, 2023 along LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street in Manhattan. The gallery exhibits works visible through its windows facing out onto the streets, so the exhibit can be seen seven days a week for free. It is is curated by Deborah Willis, chair of NYU Tisch’s Department of Photography, the author of the popular new book of photographic history entitled The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship, published last year.

I took photos of the exhibit as you would experience it in person. So I am showing you these as WINDOWS facing out onto city streets. The windows themselves are designed in layers with both background layers and a foreground layer. Sometimes that makes the image harder to photograph, but more fascinating to see live and in person. Lighting is used by the designer to create background images. Here is the introductory panel. You can see photos and text, also visible are reflections of cars, trees, and buildings.

Curator Deborah Willis stresses the use of photos in the exhibit as both personal and political statements by Blacks who had never before been photographed en masse in the United States. She also explained her use of the words of the Black men and women of the period.

The exhibit has panels on the background to this war begun to defend slavery, the lives of enslaved Blacks, and the Union strategy for victory. Lincoln’s Emancipation policy gets a window all of its own.

This was followed by the Call to Arms for Black men.

Black women played an important role in the armed struggle for freedom. There are a number of panels on women leaders as well as on women who supported their husband’s enlistment in the army.

The impact of military service on Black families is also explored. The Black family had never been respected under slavery and military service could threaten the very lives of the newly freed husbands.

The exhibit also looks at the impact of Black military service on how African Americans were treated after the war. Without Black soldiers, there would not have been Black citizens.

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