Essay #1 by William Earle Williams, compliment to current LUAG exhibition

The series of three essays written by the artist are presented here to support the Lehigh University Art Gallery (LUAG) current exhibition that runs until May 25, 2014.  LUAG rescheduled a gallery talk by William Earle Williams for Friday, March 21, 2014, from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. A reception will follow from 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. in the Gallery. His lecture, originally scheduled for Feb. 13, was cancelled due to bad weather.

A Stirring Song Sung Heroic:
African Americans from Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1865 ____________________________________________

The exhibition and publication A Stirring Song Sung Heroic: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom, 1619 to 1865 is presented to encourage discussions about slavery and citizenship rights while broadening our understanding of how blacks participated in the Civil War.

On May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders 143, establishing a Bureau of Colored Troops in the Adjutant General’s Office to recruit and organize African American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. With this order, all African American regiments were designated as United States Colored Troops (USCT). The battle sites and training camps for these troops are designated USCT and when known, their specific regiment is listed.

Until the 1989 release of Glory, a feature-length motion picture about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, it was not well-known that black troops served in the Civil War. More than 180,000 blacks served in the Army along with 20,000 in the Navy from 1861–1865. Serving in segregated units with white officers in command, these men made significant contributions to the Union victory. Blacks fought in 449 engagements and 39 major battles from 1862 to 1865. They fought in trans-Mississippi, Mississippi Valley, and Atlantic Coast theaters of the War. By War’s end 12 percent of the total Union land forces consisted of black troops. This number is equal to the total number of effective Confederate soldiers still present for duty in April of 1865.

Presently, there is no comprehensive pictorial record of these sites. The photographs of the most prominent sites are exhibited and published here, including the battlefields of Port Hudson, Morris Island, Fort Pillow, Jenkins’ Ferry, Poison Spring, and Appomattox. These are the places where black troops contributed with distinction and valor to the final Union victory. Training camps like Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and Camp William Penn, Pennsylvania are pictured because these are the sites where these men became soldiers. My photographs honor their memory, give a precise description of the place, and provide a visual means to understand that it was in these places and landscapes that the moral and legal groundwork for the modern black Civil Rights Movement—and the concept of civil rights for all Americans—was established. Too often the historical and artistic legacy of black accomplishment is ignored. As an artist, the memory of these solders has inspired my artistic imagination. The ground they fought on is sacred and an inspiration for all Americans. These sites dispel the myth that blacks were given their citizenship and rights after the war without having fought for and earned them. These places confirm that 38,178 black soldiers gave their lives—training, fighting, and dying on those sites. Blacks serving as soldiers during the Civil War shaped their own futures, and America’s history.

~William Earle Williams