Sunday, May 20, 2018
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David Shribman

Where portraits tell of the Civil War

WASHINGTON — In this 150th anniversary season, you can explore the Civil War by reading narratives, memoirs, and letters. You can examine historians’ visions and scholars’ revisions. You can delve into the great speeches of the era, especially those of Abraham Lincoln.

But perhaps the best, and most unexpected, thing you can do is to walk into the National Portrait Gallery and be stirred by the portraits, posters, prints, and handbills on its ancient walls.

The Civil War was a photographed war, the first major conflict to be recorded by camera. These pictures, especially those by Matthew Brady, are riveting and realistic.

The camera was the Twitter of the time: flashy, relatively new, full of promise, attended by overly excited early adapters. No matter that the most moving photographs of the war were battlefield pictures, many of them staged, with bodies moved for effect.

The old, reliable medium in the middle of the 19th century was the painting: familiar, true, centuries-old, steeped in tradition, a craft with its own conventions and a time-honored apprentice structure. Though agitated by new movements, rife with rebellion, upended by realism, it remained old-fashioned even then, in a time we now consider old-fashioned.

And so, amid all of the fancy new multimedia presentations about the war that redefined the country and redeemed its Founders’ idealism, we might pause before a few old paintings that speak to us still, a century and a half later.

Perhaps that is because we feel the poetic intervention of the painter in these Civil War portraits, leading us to sense that our experience is shaped by someone who is thinking about the subject in a way less obvious to us than when we view a photograph.

It is, of course, false to say that photographs involve less human intention and intervention than paintings do. But we are conditioned, often wrongly, to think that they are records as opposed to interpretations.

These portraits, many gathered from the gallery’s permanent collection, aren’t so much a fire bell in the night as a whisper in the ear. And yet they are jarring to modern Americans who are trained to think of Civil War generals as dusty busts on a tucked-away shelf. Not so.

Here is Stonewall Jackson, strong and proud, and William Tecumseh Sherman, resolute in northern eyes, despised in southern.

There is a remarkable hand-painted lithograph of Martin Delany, the black activist, doctor, and editor who was an associate of Frederick Douglass.

Much about this portrait is wrong. It shows him standing in front of Union tents, presumably as the battle commander of black troops.

But there remains something strong and true about this image. Mr. Delany persuaded President Lincoln to allow black officers to command black troops. Mr. Delany was chosen to lead the 104th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops in Charleston, S.C.

The war ended too soon for Mr. Delany or his troops to see action. Yet the point remains: Mr. Delany was a pioneer and visionary, two traits that ensure his memory today.

“He was one of the most militant activists for African-American self-determination and civil rights during the antebellum period,” says Ann Shumard, senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “He had gone to great lengths to catalog the professionals of color who were men of accomplishment.”

A century and a half later, the Civil War and the debate on slavery that prompted it still inspire great moments in the arts. Linger for a moment before one final masterpiece at the portrait gallery, an 1864 chromolithograph of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Philadelphia.

This breathtaking print portrays black soldiers and their white commanding officer at Camp William Penn. Its title is “Come and Join Us Brothers.”

The lesson of the Civil War is that the conflict joined us as brothers. Nowhere is that clearer than in these pictures at an exhibition.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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