Exhibition at Yale Highlights African Americans in the Civil War

An exhibition at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 121 Wall St., brings to life an episode of American – and Connecticut – history that has not yet received its due attention: the unique struggle of more than 215,000 African Americans who fought in the Union armies and navy during the Civil War.

Titled after the refrain of an old spiritual, “No Man Can Hinder Me” speaks to the courage and fortitude of men who had to contend with the pervasive racism of the North while fighting to end slavery in the South.

Drawn from collections within the Beinecke and Yale University libraries, the exhibition chronicles African American participation in the war effort from recruitment and organization through veterans’ experiences in the postwar years. Autograph letters and documents detailing military specifics (selection of officers, pay, health, drill and discipline) are complemented by items that highlight the broader political contexts (citizenship, emancipation) in which these men served out their terms of enlistment.

Running through March 15, the exhibition was curated by visiting scholar Bethuel Hunter, who also wrote the companion monograph available free to visitors. “No Man Can Hinder Me” further elaborates on the complex history of African American participation in the war effort.

The story is also one of heroism with a local angle. Sergeant Major Horace N. Loudin, Private Sylvester Jefferson and Private William D. Harmon are among the 35 African American soldiers from New Haven, listed in an 1889 pamphlet published by The Register, who died while serving in the 29th Connecticut Volunteers (“Colored”) and the 31st U. S. Colored Troops.

Among the items on display are the pen Abraham Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, a letter by Frederick Douglass relating bits of war news and announcing his son Charles’s enlistment in the 54th Massachusetts, and a full color recruitment poster. Prominent among the group and individual portraits of black soldiers is an album of formal portraits of the men of Company F, 108th U. S. Colored Troops, presented as a gift by First Lieutenant Theodore F. Wright to his mother Sara. The important contribution made by black women, including nurse Susie King Taylor and Harriet Tubman, who served as a nurse, recruiter and scout, are also highlighted.

Two Yale graduates figure in the exhibition. Letters by Lewis Ledyard Weld (Class of 1854) to his mother in August 1864 describe the heroism of black troops under his command at the battle of Deep Bottom in Virginia. Charles G. G. Merrill (Class of 1861, M.D. 1863) was a surgeon with the 22nd U. S. Colored Troops. His letters to his family, several of which are included in the exhibition, describe deplorable conditions suffered by the black troops during and after the war.

American cultural and Civil War historian Noah Andre Trudeau, a director for National Public Radio’s Programming Division, will deliver a lecture at the Beinecke on February 13 at 4 p.m. about the role of black troops during the war. Trudeau’s work on the Civil War includes the trilogy “Bloody Roads South,” “The Last Citadel” and “Out of the Storm.” “Like Men of War,” a combat history of black troops in the Civil War, was honored with the Grady McWhiney Research Foundation’s Jerry Coffey Memorial Book Prize. His newest book is “Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage.” Trudeau’s lecture will be followed by an opening reception. Both events are free and open to the public.

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Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345