54th Massachusetts Volunteers

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54th Massachusetts Volunteers
c. 1963
Jennie Scott Washington
Acrylic on canvas
28.81 x 19.75 in.
DuSable Museum of African American History
947464

The smoke of cannons and gunfire cloud the blue sky. An African American soldier waves the American flag, leading the charge. As the Union troops rush to the fort, both white and black men bleed from their wounds. In this painting of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an African American regiment during the Civil War, artist Jennie Scott Washington tells the story of the Battle of Fort Wagner (July 18, 1863), South Carolina, in vivid color. The way the artist paints the men is simple, like an illustration in a picture book. This plain style makes the reality of the people in this battle very easy to see.  At the center of the image is the African American flag bearer, standing alongside Colonel Robert G. Shaw, who is bleeding from the wound that would kill him. Beyond the battle, you can see the bay in which Fort Wagner was situated.

This painting was made one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, during the Civil Rights Movement, a period when African Americans were calling attention to their forbearers’ contributions to the nation.  The painting appears to be a based on the c.1890 chromolithograph, Storming Fort Wagner, by Kurz & Allison, a firm that published many prints of Civil War battles during the late 1880s and early 1890s. By quoting this nineteenth-century illustration, the artist may have been hoping to achieve historical accuracy. With its focus on the action of battle, depicted in bloody detail, the painting recovers and emphasizes the deeds and valor of African American soldiers during the Civil War.  The contributions of the men known as the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) were largely omitted from popular narratives about the Civil War. This painting illustrates how African American artists chose to tell the stories of the U.S.C.T., so that no one would forget their heroic actions.

Questions:
1. When you look at this painting, what do you imagine the battle sounds like? How does this picture make you feel? How does the plain style affect your response to the painting?

2. In the twentieth century there were several works of art that depicted the U.S.C.T., from the 1989 film Glory, to some of the paintings on this website. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was one of the most popular subjects. Take a look at three pictures that tell the story of African American regiments: Col. Robert G. Shaw Dying at the Battle of Fort Wagner, Negro Troops Receive Instructions in the Field, and The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground. When you compare these paintings to one another, what differences do you see?

Further reading:
Fahs, Alice. “Picturing the Civil War 1.” Picturing U.S. History. http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/?p=885.

Pohanka, Brian C. “Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, July 18, 1863.” America's Civil War Magazine. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/batterywagner/battery-wagner-history-articles/fortwagnerpohanka.html.


Questions:
1. When you look at this painting, what do you imagine the battle sounds like? How does this picture make you feel? How does the plain style affect your response to the painting?

2. In the twentieth century there were several works of art that depicted the U.S.C.T., from the 1989 film Glory, to some of the paintings on this website. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was one of the most popular subjects. Take a look at three pictures that tell the story of African American regiments: Col. Robert G. Shaw Dying at the Battle of Fort Wagner, Negro Troops Receive Instructions in the Field, and The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground. When you compare these paintings to one another, what differences do you see?

Further reading:
Fahs, Alice. “Picturing the Civil War 1.” Picturing U.S. History. http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/?p=885.

Pohanka, Brian C. “Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, July 18, 1863.” America's Civil War Magazine. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/batterywagner/battery-wagner-history-articles/fortwagnerpohanka.html.
©DuSable Museum of African American History