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New Exhibit Highlights African American Soldiers Of The Civil War

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Gulf Islands National Seashore
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More than 179,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War. The USCT made up over 10% of the Union Army and 25% of the Union Navy, but the service of those men is often a footnote in history books.

A new exhibit at Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Fort Pickens Discovery Center highlights 17 members of the 25th USCT, Company G, who served in the Pensacola Bay area, defending Fort Barrancas from April to August in 1864. The exhibit of life-sized portraits stems from a collection of postage-stamp-sized photographs that became the fascination of Ann Arbor illustrator Shayne Davidson in 2012. 

“I was working on a family tree for a friend when I asked if she had any photos, and she put me in touch with her cousin, who told me about this tiny album that belonged to her great-grandfather, Captain William A. Prickett,” Davidson recalled. 

Inside the locket-sized album are 18 portraits of men from the USCT, Company G. While the photos had little to do with her friend’s family tree, she became fascinated by the men from the album. Her friend sent photos of each portrait — all but one had names handwritten on the matte. 

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Credit Courtesy photo
Illustrator Shayne Davidson took an interest in a small photo album of USCT troops. She recreated the photographs and researched each of the identified men to share their story.

“I started to do research, thinking I wouldn’t find much out about them, but then I came across (the website) Fold3, which has military records. I was able to trace each of them to varying degrees. Some, I have their complete life stories … others I might have a census record or two.”

Only one story about Capt. Prickett’s time with USCT was passed down generations.

“(Captain Prickett) got sick at Fort Barrancas, and he believed he wasn’t going to make it,” Davidson said. “He credited the men for saving his life.”

Coincidentally enough, through her research, she found one of the soldiers, James Tall, had a daughter named Pensacola.

“That tells me that the time (the company) spent there had some impact,” she said.

After spending time with the portraits and putting stories to each face, Davidson decided to try and re-create them in life-size form. The exhibit has traveled to several states and will be at Gulf Islands National Seashore through May 15. It's the first temporary exhibit for the center. 

The exhibit is also a chance for GINS staff to sort through its collection of 500,000 artifacts, which are rarely on display since the Fort is vulnerable to storms and flooding. Curator Catherine Everitt said the exhibit was timed to be taken down by hurricane season for that reason.

The artifacts come from the Seashore’s collection as well as private collectors. One item in particular was an exciting find.

“To everyone’s surprise, we found a muster roll for Company G and we found 16 of the names from the exhibit,” Everitt said.

She and curatorial assistant Victoria Cacchione worked on researching what life was like for the USCT. Men joined voluntarily, and were typically given manual-labor jobs, Everitt said. And they faced discrimination just like in civilian life. The exhibit shares the patriotism and the hardships. 

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A record of one of the USCT soldiers, Private George H. Mitchell.

“It’s one thing to read about this, but this is history you can hold,” Everitt said. “These were real people, not just some pages in a book.”

Shards of a harmonica uncovered from an excavation gives a sense of the soldiers’ lives outside of war, said Cicchione.

Davidson said she didn’t have a goal in mind when she started her portrait project. But whenever the exhibit makes a new stop, she always hopes that a descendent can find a piece of their history.

Pastor C. Marcel Davis is a local descendent of a USCT soldier, Jonas Brown. Brown was raised in Washington County and worked on a steamboat with his best friend. They shipped gopher tortoises from Vernon to Pensacola as a delicacy.

Davis said he didn’t know much about his great-grandfather’s service. As a kid, the stories were kind of lost on him. As an adult, Davis shares his ancestry with pride.

“It shows the tenacity of African men in America,” he said. “After all those years I kind of look back and I’m astounded how that history is not always recognized.”

Davidson’s exhibit has taken on a life of its own — and she’s pleased to be in the background, she said. And the little album that started it all? The family has since donated it to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Davidson and Prickett’s descendants all met up to donate the album. It was the first time Davidson saw it in person.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s been a really amazing experience.”