The Lewes History Museum will open its doors to a unique exhibition combining art and African American history at 6 p.m., Friday, Feb. 12.
Seventeen Men: Portraits of Black Civil War Soldiers provides a rare opportunity for the public to glimpse the lives of men who served in the 25th United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War.
“Ultimately, the goal was to take 17 small, photographic images that had come to me purely by accident and good fortune, and attempt through research, drawing and writing to help people learn each man’s story and visualize the living man,” said author and artist Shayne Davidson.
Davidson, an experienced genealogist and illustrator living in Ann Arbor, Mich., came across a palm-sized 1860s photo album documenting soldiers from the Mid-Atlantic region who served Union Capt. William A. Prickett. “As I was looking at the images in this 2-inch photo album, I realized that each man’s name was written on the mats that surrounded the image,” said Davidson.
As an artist, Davidson said she was compelled to bring these nearly forgotten figures to almost life-scale proportions, which will be exhibited at the Lewes History Museum. Through the process, she became intrigued. “I kept wondering who the men were and if it would be possible through research to discover more about their lives,” she said.
She soon discovered that six of the men came from Delaware and one from Maryland. James Henry Hovington, born in Kent County in 1829, was enslaved at the time of enlistment. George H. Mitchell, born in Georgetown, and George Watson, born in Sussex County in May 1845, were both enlisted by their slaveholders. Pvt. Theodore Tennant was born in the 1820s in Sussex County. He was a free man by 1830 and registered for the draft as a 40-year-old farmer in 1863. Prince Short, born in 1840 in Sussex County, and Bayard Sorden, also from Delaware, were free men. All trained near Philadelphia in Cheltenham Township at Camp William Penn, which was a Union Army camp dedicated to training African American troops from 1863 to 1865.
Davidson’s portraits will be accompanied by a scholarly biography that identifies the complexities of each man’s life before, during and after the Civil War. Davidson, who has never been to Delaware and was disappointed to miss this opportunity due to COVID-19, said she hopes to continue her research when time allows. “There are a handful of men that I don’t know what happened to after the war. I would love to continue my research and possibly discover where they are buried when time allows,” she said. “A lot of the men probably knew Lewes and walked around there.”
Why the 17 men’s photographs were placed in a pocket-sized photo album remains a mystery, but Davidson suspects the men made the photo album for their captain. She said Prickett’s granddaughter claimed he had close relationships with the men under his command.
Prickett’s photo album contains one of the largest existing collections of identified African American Civil War soldier photographs from a single company. In mid-1863, the USCT was part of the regular Army rather than a volunteer state militia. Approximately 180,000 African Americans were part of Union forces during the Civil War, with most serving in the United States Colored Troops. The album is now in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“My research into the backgrounds of the men in the album gave me a much greater appreciation of their service to America and the challenges they encountered in their lives. I hope the work provides the reader with a glimpse into the past and inspires an interest in the history of African American participation in the Civil War,” said Davidson.
For more information, go to historiclewes.org.
The exhibit will run through Feb. 26, 2022.
Following the opening, the hours will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday to Saturday.