Inside the restored plantation house that was home to generations of Maryland’s distinguished Snowden family, Michigan artist Shayne Davidson’s illustrations pay tribute to 17 unsung Civil War soldiers in Montpelier Mansion’s current exhibit, “Civil War Soldiers, Discovering the Men of the 25th United States Colored Troops.”
The collection of life-size drawings was inspired by a tiny, leather-bound photo album the artist and genealogist stumbled across while researching a friend’s family tree — a “national treasure” that has since been donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Not quite 2 inches tall, the artifact is unique; 16 of the 17 African-American men in the photographs are identified, which is as rare as the album itself.
The album’s original owner, Capt. William A. Prickitt, was a 25-year-old white commissioned Union officer from New Jersey who commanded 113 colored men from February 1864–December 1865 in Company G. Prickitt carried the album in his uniform pocket.
According to Davidson, he told his family that had his men not cared diligently for him when he fell ill with dysentery, he would have died. The photos in the album may be images of the men who cared for him. Or, the album may have been a gift.
“There are lots of mysteries about the album that will never be solved,” Davidson said, at the exhibit’s opening reception at Montpelier Mansion on Jan. 13.
At a formal presentation and book signing, the blonde-haired artist described a year-long journey culminating in the exhibit and a book she wrote with the same name, which is available at the Mansion gift shop and on Amazon.
That journey began in Illinois where, at the home of a friend who is Prickitt’s great-granddaughter, a 19th-century oil painting by Prickitt caught Davidson’s eye.
The ensuing conversation led to her friend’s cousin bringing Davidson another family heirloom; the photo album had been sitting casually on a laundry room shelf. Feeling compelled by the men’s miniature portraits to draw them life-sized, and with the goal of bringing “some humanity” to her art, Davidson decided to do family trees on all 17 men.
Using 18-year-old Pvt. James Tall as an example to explain her process, Davidson described researching military records, various online resources and pension records from the National Archives and Veteran’s Administration.
The resulting, vibrant 20 x 27.5-inch colored-pencil drawings on display bring the men’s identities out of the tiny photo album and to life.
Their origins, as noted in the descriptions, are diverse; some enlisted as freemen, some were escaped slaves, two were enlisted by their slaveholders. In Company G, Tall was the only soldier born in the deep South.
In the end, Davison said, she feels there was “love between these guys.”
Davidson’s “Civil War Soldiers” exhibit was seen for the first time at ArtPrize in 2013 in Grand Rapids, Michigan and last displayed at the Johns Hopkins University’s Evergreen Museum in Baltimore December 2016 through last July.
Montpelier Mansion museum manager Mary Jurkiewicz said when she discovered, last summer, that she’d just missed seeing the Evergreen exhibit, she contacted Davidson about bringing the exhibit to Laurel.
Joseph Sherren, collections manager at Montpelier Mansion, crafted foam-model replicas of the photo album artifact and was assisted by volunteer Courtnye Koivisto. He said working on his first full project, from start to finish, with an exhibit “was an incredible experience.”
“We reached out to the National Museum of African American History and Culture to get high-res images of not only the portraits, but of the photo album itself — they gave us the accurate dimensions, they gave us the images and they were incredibly happy for us to include them,” Sherren said.
Cecil Haney, a Navy vet from Adelphi who loves military history, said he was very impressed with Davidson’s research and with the artifact at the opening.
“You can get so much history out of a little photo album through due diligence and the contributions of folks whose stories we’d not heard had there not been somebody connecting the dots,” Haney said.
A fan of family history and genealogy, Kathryn Osborne said she read about the exhibit in the Parks and Recreation Planning Guide. Osborne found the exhibit “very enlightening and a nice prelude to the Black History Month presentation that will be taking place with Parks and Planning.
“I love it that [the exhibit] is here, in a mansion that was a plantation house that had slaves,” Davidson said.
“Civil War Soldiers, Discovering the Men of the 25th United States Colored Troops” is open daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. through March 11 (closed Wednesdays), at Montpelier Historic Site, 9650 Muirkirk Road. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors (60 and older) and $2 for children 5–17 (under 4 admitted free) with guided tours on the second Saturday and fourth Sunday (please call to confirm) and for groups by appointment. For more information, call 301-377-7817 or go to history.pgparks.com.