Rare Civil War Prints of African American Union Soldiers

Oct 13, 2014

Historians and collectors gathered in Cedar Rapids last weekend to mark the 150 anniversary of the Civil War’s end.

They came together to talk about the African American experience during the war at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the African American Museum of Iowa.  The centerpiece of the discussion are 43 pictures of Union camps, battle fields, and soldiers hanging in the Museum of Art. These prints are rare because they were made directly from glass negatives in the 1860s, and because many show African Americans serving as Union Soldiers.  The pictures belong to 79-year-old Judy Norrell, a former lobbyist who lives Washington D.C.  

“I’d never really focused on the Civil War to the degree perhaps that I should because I didn’t want to,” says Norrell to an audience gathered for the symposium.  

Norell grew up in the South and remembers seeing many statues memorializing the Confederacy, but she says these objects tend to romanticize the grim reality of the war. “We lost, and that’s the part that has been terribly difficult to assimilate.  There were terrible economic consequences to that,” says Norrell.

For most of her life she has struggled between her love of the South and her contempt for its history of slavery and segregation.  A few years ago, she found some clarity after reading a book about the last month of the Civil War, most of which happened near a Virginia farm she owns. Soon after, she discovered a way to express her feelings about civil rights, the war, and her love of home.  It happened when she bought a set of four pictures of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Light Artillery taken in 1864. She found it at the annual Association of International Photography Art Dealers show in New York.

“I’ve always used visual images to speak, sometimes because people can read an image the way you can never read a book or hear a lecture, no matter whether you’re educated highly or not at all, it talks to you.  It tells you what it was like.”

She continued to seek out Civil War prints, especially those featuring African Americans. By 2012, she had enough for a museum exhibition and called it “Shadows of History”. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is the fourth gallery to host these fragile pictures.  One thing not seen in these pictures are any of the 600 Iowa Union soldiers of African American descent.  Civil War historian Ken Lyftogt from the University of Northern Iowa says, a photo does exist of 60th United States Colored Infantry, but it taken after the war.  Lyftgot says many significant aspects of the Civil War weren’t photographed during the conflict.

“We always fall into this idea that the Civil War was fought between Washington and Richmond, part of that was because the greatest newspapers are in the east, the government is in the east, the fight for the capitol’s is in the east, so when you get the photo exhibits it also is eastern dominated,” Lyftgot says.

But unexpected photos are discovered, like an image unveiled this weekend in Virginia of a slave who is identified by name.  Slaves were almost never mentioned by name in any photos.  This exceptional print was discovered in England of all places during a rummage sale.  This is exactly the kind of photo Judy Norrell would love to add her collection. While Norrell is focusing on finding vintage pictures, she says every Civil War exhibit is important. “It’s important because we can’t, we don’t forget and we all live in part, in the reflection of the Civil War, or so I would argue,” she says.

Shadows of History is at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art through January.