Identified photographs of African-American soldiers from the Civil War are incredibly rare. Captain William A. Prickitt, a New Jersey-born white officer in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) owned miniature album containing gem tintype photos of 17 men under his command during the war.
The captain treasured the album and passed it down to his descendants. Decades after his death in 1929, his great granddaughter inherited it and carefully stored it away in a box in her kitchen pantry. She shared the photos with me while I was working on a family tree of her family.
The photographer’s identity is unknown, but in order to preserve the men’s identities for posterity, Captain Prickitt wrote each man’s name on the paper mat that held each photo. I was fascinated by the photos and realized that having the name provided a unique opportunity to find out more about the men.
At first I was just curious, but as I discovered more details I decided to create a family tree for each man. Next I embarked on creating a life-sized, colored pencil portrait of each man, using his tiny photograph as a starting point.
Over a six-month period I completed 17 life-sized portraits: one for every man in the album. Then I wrote a brief biography, based on my genealogical research, to accompany the portrait.
Captain Prickitt’s descendants donated the album to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, where it is currently on display.
The talk focuses on who the men were and the documents I used to research their lives.
Shayne Davidson is an author, artist, genealogist and vintage photography collector. Her exhibit of portraits and bios of the men in Captain Prickitt’s album, titled Seventeen Men, opens February 12, 2021 at the Lewes Historical Society in Lewes, Delaware.
Presented on February 6, 2021.