Better Late Than Never: Celebrating Black Military Heroes, In Art


As a black child growing up during the modern Civil Rights era, and in a family whose military service dates back to the Civil War, I often wondered why so little was known about the service of black men. I soon came to realize that racial segregation and the marginalization of blacks prevailed not only in America but also across the globe. Black soldiers were recruited in times of crisis, but their service and contributions were often omitted from history textbooks and national narratives.

Philadelphia’s own Union League is a case in point. The Union League was founded in 1862 to support the Union cause during the Civil War; it was instrumental in recruiting and mustering the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) at Camp William Penn, just outside of Philadelphia. In fact, the League actually created more black regiments than white ones during the Civil War. Yet until this year none of the League’s many monuments and paintings celebrating the exploits of Civil War soldiers and leaders reflected the League’s own important role in America’s black military legacy.

Two new art events in Philadelphia make important contributions toward correcting this oversight. They also help us to appreciate the role that art plays in teaching us about the past.

The Penn Museum’s new exhibit, “Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster,” explores depictions of black men in military recruiting and propaganda art from the American Civil War through the African Independence movements of the 1960s. (To read Alaina Mabaso’s BSR review, click here.)

Union League’s breakthrough

Meanwhile, this week the Union League’s Abraham Lincoln Foundation unveiled Three Medals of Honor, by Don Troiani, an artist known for his breathtaking and meticulously researched depictions of historic military events. Troiani’s commissioned painting, funded with a gift from a League member, Robert C. Andrews, Jr., is the League’s first artwork commemorating the military exploits of African Americans.

Three Medals of Honor captures a moment in the Battle of New Market Heights, Virginia, on September 29, 1864, for which 16 Medals of Honor were awarded— 14 to black soldiers— the most such medals ever awarded at one time. Troiani’s painting of two such black heroes— Sergeant Major Thomas R. Hawkins and First Sergeant Alexander Kelly— effectively encapsulates the courage of black troops during the Civil War as well as the injustice of prevailing attitudes toward them: Because black men were believed incapable of serving as commissioned officers, their ranks were led by a white Lieutenant, Nathan Edgerton, who is the third Medal of Honor recipient in the painting.

Real models, real sword

Troiani’s painting, the result of extensive research in the National Archives and other historical records, is stunningly accurate in its rendering of the battle scene— a far cry from The Storming of Fort Wagner, an 1890 lithograph currently on display in the Penn Museum’s “Black Bodies” exhibit. Both works are extraordinary images of war, but Troiani’s is moving for its realism, especially of the soldiers. (Troiani used several local U.S. Colored Troops re-enactors as his models, and one of Edgerton’s descendants provided the Lieutenant’s sword.)

“Black Bodies” and Three Medals of Honor both beg a nagging question: Why would individuals who were disenfranchised and subjected to second-class citizenship fight for a country that denies them equal treatment? The artwork is a moving and important medium for this reflection.