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Friday, October 21, 2011

Fighting for Freedom and Equality: African American Soldiers of the American Civil War (1861-1865)

African American Civil War soldier, tintype, circa 1865, 2011.51.12, Liljenquist Family Collection, Photograph by Michael Barnes, SI Photographer, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution
In this image of a mid-19th century encased tintype selected by Lonnie Bunch III, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an unknown young African American man in military dress stares solemnly into the camera while holding a Colt Model 1849 Pocket Revolver across his chest.  He represents one of the nearly 180,000 African American men who courageously fought in the American Civil War.  Although the war officially began on July 12, 1861 with a historical bombardment led by Confederate soldiers at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, African American soldiers were prohibited from participating in combat until years later.  The tide began to turn in July of 1862 when the United States Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which freed enslaved African Americans owned by wealthy planters who had challenged the United States.  This was coupled with a militia act that allowed President Abraham Lincoln to then use the men of the newly freed population in the Union army, and employment initially took the form of civilian labor away from the battlefields.[1]  However, after several devastating Union defeats, Lincoln issued forth the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all enslaved African Americans of rebel states would be released from bondage on January 1, 1863.  This single and yet powerful act became the impetus for a tremendous surge of African American soldiers joining the fight on treacherous battlegrounds. 

We do not know a great deal about the man in this treasured photograph.  However, we do know that this man witnessed and participated in historical events that altered the livelihoods of all Americans.  His enlistment signaled the metamorphosis from enslaved to liberated, as much as it played a role in the trajectory that involves the ongoing struggle for respect and social equality.  Although millions of African Americans were now free from physical bondage, many discovered that they were forced to prove they were worthy of citizenship and be granted the same constitutional rights as their fellow Americans.  This man and other soldiers like him fought for acceptance – not only for themselves, but for African Americans living in communities across the young and war-torn country. 

The delicate care and preservation applied to this historical object can successfully maximize its life span, whether in a museum setting or within the home as a family heirloom passed down through the generations.  For an encased tintype such as this one, an ideal method of storage would be to house it within an acid-free, drop-front box with a lid measured to fit the individual case.  The lid works to protect the object from pollutants transported by dust particles, fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and photochemical damage.  The box can also be lined with an archival polyethylene foam such as Ethafoam® to offer additional protection.  The preferred temperature for photographic collections that do not require cold storage is 65°F with a relative humidity (RH) between 30-40%.  As tintypes are mainly composed of iron, corrosion is a definite concern that can be addressed by closely monitoring humidity levels.  The tintype should be assessed regularly, especially if it has been incorporated into a composite case.  The case depicted above helps to illustrate this environment as it is composed of a copper alloy, glass, thermoplastic, and fabric.  Loose tintypes can be housed in acid-free paper enclosures with additional backing and stored flat.  Cotton or nitrile gloves should always be used when handling these fragile items.  Tintypes can also be exhibited under low light levels with very minimal ultraviolet radiation for several weeks.

This tintype will be on view in an upcoming pre-building exhibition at our gallery within the National Museum of American History.  The exhibition, slated to open on January 1, 2013 and curated by Lonnie Bunch III and Harry Rubenstein (NMAH), will center on the social and historical connections between the significant era that gave birth to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights movement that was instrumental in producing the memorable March on Washington.  It is only one of the many objects with a fascinating story that will be introduced to the public before the National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opens in the year 2015.  We warmly welcome you and look forward to seeing you there.    

Kareen Morrison, Collections Manager

[1] Geier and Winter, Look to the earth : historical archaeology and the American Civil War (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1994)

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