Hours before the exhibit opens at the Evergreen Museum and Library, Johns Hopkins University alumna Vanessa Tall Bryant walks past penciled, life-size portraits of black Civil War soldiers, each stoic and dressed in blue uniforms decorated with gold buttons. The Nashville resident passes a painting featuring President Abraham Lincoln and John Work Garrett, former owner of the mansion that houses the museum, and then stops at a somewhat familiar face — Pvt. James Tall, her grandfather.
His re-created portrait is one among "Seventeen Men: Portraits of Black Civil War Soldiers," which opened Thursday at the Johns Hopkins museum. The project started with a pocket-sized photo album that belonged to their commanding officer, William A. Prickitt, a former captain of the U.S. Colored Troops for the Union Army.
The album, displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, contains head shots of African-American Civil War soldiers ranging in age from around 15 to 50, including Pvt. John H. Spurrier, who registered for the draft in Anne Arundel County. It was a keepsake of Prickitt's, a white man, who credited these men with saving his life when he had fallen ill, according to Prickitt's grandson Corwin Atwood, 76, of Silver Spring, who also visited the exhibit Thursday afternoon.
Initially, artist and genealogy enthusiast Shayne Davidson, 60, of Ann Arbor, Mich., had been researching family history for Prickitt's descendants, who are her friends. The family supplied her with the photo album that belonged to their great-grandfather, Prickitt, with the tintype head shots of African-American soldiers, and she was astounded. Each man was identified.
"Even though I'm not an expert in 19th-century photography, I realized that that was very, very unusual to have photographic record of African-American Civil War soldiers and have their names written down," she said. "I just wanted to know if I could find anything out about them."
Before embarking on the portraits, Davidson researched for around two years, sifting through stacks of newspapers and census, military and pension records — finding that while some of the men were freed, others were escaped slaves or slaves that were enlisted by their slaveholder, likely to earn the signing bonus of $300, she said.
Spurrier, likely a freed man, according to Davidson, registered himself at age 28 in 1863. He later worked as a general laborer. She said Spurrier never applied for a Civil War pension, which may indicate that he didn't live long enough to apply for one.
Bryant's grandfather Tall — was an 18-year-old escaped slave at the time of his enlistment, according to Davidson's research. Tall, like the other men featured in the album, lived past the war, and later started a family. He married three times and had 16 children, including his youngest child, Sigel, also Bryant's father, who was born in 1922 when Tall was at the ripe age of 77. Tall died 10 years later.
Bryant first learned of Prickitt's album once she was connected with Davidson through Ancestry.com. She had never seen a young photo of her grandfather, she said.
"It's ironic, because this picture looks exactly like my ... brother, and none of us had any idea that we resembled him," Bryant said while looking at Davidson's portrait.
And as Davidson became more invested in the soldiers' stories, she decided to bring them to life.
"I wondered, 'What would they really have looked like?' I want to see them bigger. This album is like postage stamps," Davidson said.
In roughly six months, Davidson drew each of the men on large cards, using soft colored pencils to convey the details, copying their facial expressions, facial hair and details on their uniforms — missed buttons included — as closely as possible, along with superimposed images of their military records. She has displayed her artwork at international art competition Artprize in Grand Rapids, Mich., which placed in the top 25 in the 2-dimensional category. She even pitched it to the Smithsonian African-American museum, but curators found more interest in the original photo album, she said. Her friend James Abbot, Evergreen Museum and Library director and curator, however, saw the works to be important and a way to remember a history that would be otherwise forgotten.
"For Evergreen, this is a house that was acquired by the Garrett family in the late 19th century, but its history is intertwined with the Civil War because so much of the Garrett family's success as stewards of the B&O [Railroad] was dependent on the outcome of the Civil War and they backed the Union cause and they made sure the railroads supported the Union," Abbot said.
"It just seemed like a really interesting fit to have this exhibition of these 17, otherwise unidentified, men, if not for this album, who basically gave similar, if not greater sacrifices in serving in the war," than some of the other notables depicted in the museum and library, he said.
Bryant, in her early 50s, hopped on a three-hour flight from Tennessee just to view Davidson's exhibit and the original photos at the Smithsonian museum this week. Bryant said she has been acting as the "ambassador of the family," taking mental notes about everything she's seeing and learning during the trip to share with her relatives.
"It was pretty sobering," she said, adding that she was especially taken aback to see her grandfather's portrait "intermingling" with other solders — and even a former president — on the Evergreen Museum's walls.
"We're really, super excited about it and that the Prickitt family descendants and Shayne are not only sharing just personally, to themselves, they're sharing it with a multitude of people who will walk through museums ... so that story is actually shared for generations to come."
If you go
"Seventeen Men: Portraits of Black Civil War Soldiers" will be open at the Evergreen Museum & Library through June 4. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; noon-4 p.m. weekends. North Wing Gallery, 4545 N. Charles St. $5-$8; free for Hopkins faculty, staff and students. museums.jhu.edu