Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Although not a sketch artist like William Forbes and Alfred Waud, who drew scenes from the battlefield, African American painter David Bustill Bowser (1820-1900) is considered a Civil War artist-but for a much different reason. Active in Philadelphia from 1844 to 1889, he painted portraits of abolitionist John Brown and President Abraham Lincoln. Most important, he painted the regimental colors of the United States Colored Troops at Camp William Penn, organized in 1863 north of Philadel­phia. Bowser’s portraits of charismatic leaders are treasured by historians and fine arts enthusiasts alike, but it is his bold portrayal of the black soldier on the flags of the Colored Troops that earned Bowser distinction and recognition as a Civil War artist.

Bowser descended from a Delaware Valley family whose American roots predated the American Revolution. His grandfather, Cyrus Bustill (1732-1806), was a baker in Philadelphia, and legend, perhaps apocryphal, holds he supplied bread to General George Washington’s troops during the encampment at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. Cyrus Bustill married Elizabeth Murray (1746-1827) in 1773. The Bustills had eight children, one of whom was David Bowser’s mother, Rachel (1777-1848). Rachel Bustill married twice, first to James Harding and then to Jeremiah Bowser in 1819, at the First Presbyterian Church in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. The following year, on January 16, their son David Bustill Bowser was born.

Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1820s and 1830s, Bowser was more fortunate than his peers in obtaining an education. He attended the Kelly School on Cherry Street; among his classmates were sons of prominent black Philadel­phians. It was a period in Philadelphia during which African Americans were not encouraged to study art, and those who aspired to be craftsmen were systematically excluded from the drawing academies, artists’ associations, and mechanics’ institutes. They were generally self­-taught or helped by unprejudiced white friends and other blacks. Bowser enjoyed the good fortune to have a relative as a mentor.

At the age of eleven, David Bustill Bowser began studying art under his cousin, Robert Douglass Jr. (1809-1887). Douglass was a student of Philadelphia’s leading portraitist, Thomas Sully (1783-1872), noted for tight brushwork and lustrous use of color. From Douglass, Bowser learned about light and composition, and techniques for painting both landscapes and portraits. His studies ceased in 1837 when Douglass moved to Haiti. Without a teacher, Bowser, then seventeen, gave up art and took up barbering. For the next few years he is believed to have worked as a barber on steamboats on the Mississippi and Red Rivers. Although historians cannot with certainty document when – or even whether – Bowser worked on the steamboats, he was apparently not living in the city in 1840, for he was not listed in the federal census for Philadel­phia that year. Two years later, though, he is known to have been working as a barber in the city.

It was about 1843 when Bowser received his first commission, a portrait of Jacob C. White Sr., a black barber and real estate speculator. The assignment was unusual because wealthy blacks did not generally commission (or compen­sate) young black artists until late in the nineteenth century. The White commis­sion encouraged Bowser to pursue a career as a commercial artist. His next task was painting four parade banners for the Native American Party in 1844. Predecessor of the Know-Nothing Party, the Native American Party was formed in 1837 by white Protestants who opposed voting and office-holding privileges for Catholics and foreigners. The Nativists, as they were called, conducted their first national convention in Philadelphia in July 1845, the event for which they commissioned Bowser’s parade banners.

Bowser’s political interests were not those of the Nativists but mirrored those of the Commonwealth’s African Ameri­cans. In 1848, he attended the State Convention of Colored Citizens of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. The convention was organized to agitate for restoration of the franchise taken away from Pennsylvania’s blacks by the state Constitution of 1838. Bowser played a leading role in the State Convention of Colored Citizens, serving on the commit­tee to draft convention rules, as well as leading militant songs and exhorting Philadelphians to raise money for lobbyists to promote black voting. The convention was the beginning of Bowser’s life-long interest in working for civil rights.

In the decade before the Civil War, Bowser was active as a Philadelphia artist. In 1850, he created a pressed-felt parade hat for the Phoenix Fire Compa­ny. His 1853 Portrait of a Man, now in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, has been the subject of critical assessment, some of which links him to Thomas Sully, no doubt resulting from his study with Sully’s student, his cousin and tutor, Robert Douglass Jr. Art historian James A Porter believes “it is possible to see the influence of the English tradition of portraiture” in Bowser’s works. “As with Thomas Sully and Samuel Waugh,” Porter continues, “there is the predilection for vermilion as a transitional color between the deepest shadows of the face and the quartertones of the highlights. And like Sully, Bowser used large amounts of white mixed with yellow as a color base to give greater brilliance to the flesh tones.”

In 1858, arch-abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) stayed with the Bowser family because the artist was involved with the Underground Railroad (see “Madman or Saint? Abolitionist John Brown” by Mark Peaster, Summer 1987). Brown’s biographer Oswald Garrison Villard places Brown in Philadelphia for one week, from March 9 to March 16, and it may have been during that time that Bowser created his famous Firebell in the Night. Bowser also executed a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, but it’s unclear if the painting was painted from life or from a photograph. The argument that it was done from life rests on a report that Lincoln gave Bowser a check for the work, but this is contrary to the observa­tion that Bowser’s portrait is unquestionably copied from a photo­graph made in 1865 to be used for the engraving on a new American five-dollar note. Not only is there no correspon­dence with Bowser among Lincoln’s papers, but also the check cannot be located.

In 1859, the Reverend C. W. Thomp­son married Bowser and Elizabeth (Lizzie) H. S. Grey in St. John’s Church in York. It was the second marriage for Bowser; his first wife, Eliza Jane, died in 1850. David and Lizzie and their four children, Mary, Raphael, Annie, and Ida Elizabeth, lived at 841 North Fourth Street in Philadelphia. With a growing family, Bowser depended upon fraternal organizations and fire companies for his livelihood. Lizzie Bowser’s work as a dressmaker added to the family’s income.

It was during the early Civil War years that the opportunity of a lifetime came Bowser’s way. In June 1863, the Union Army issued an urgent appeal. “The Government of the United States calls for every able-bodied African-American man to enter the army for three years’ service, and join in fighting the battles of Liberty and the Union.” A week later Camp William Penn was established eight miles north of Philadel­phia on a farm owned by Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793-1880), a Quaker noted for her abolitionist efforts (see “The Friends Fight for Freedom” by William C. Kashatus III, Summer 1988). It was the first recruitment and training center for black soldiers operated by the federal government. Nearly eleven thousand recruits marched through its gates, including three soldiers awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. One of the recipients was recognized for rescuing a flag created by Bowser.

The Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments at Camp William Penn had asked Bowser to design and paint the flags for the United States Colored Troops. No official appointment documents have been located, but a letter written by John Weil Forney (1817-1881) to Thomas Webster, chairman of the committee, dated March 29,1864, suggests that someone was attempting to prevent him from design­ing the Colored Troops’ flags. Bowser asked the powerful Forney, owner and publisher of two influential pro-Lincoln newspapers, as well as the secretary of the United States Senate, to intercede on his behalf. Forney’s plea was compas­sionate and direct.

While in Philadelphia two days ago, I learned that an effort was being made to deprive Mr. D. B. Bowser of the work of painting the flags of the colored regiments, and I would have called upon you to make an appeal on his behalf had not the weather been so bad. He came to see me, but I was much too occupied to give him a hearing, and he writes me this morning, begging me to intercede with you – which I most earnestly and cheerfully do. He is a poor man, and certainly professes very remarkable talent. He has been active in the cause and is himself a colored man, and it seems to me there would be a peculiar hardship in taking away this little job from him and giving it to a wealthy house. Will you do your best for him, and greatly oblige.

Webster and his committee kept Bowser on as regimental flag artist. Although it is probable that Bowser designed flags for all the eleven regi­ments at Camp William Penn, only photographic images for seven units­ – the 3rd, 6th, 22nd, 24th, 25th, 45th, and 127th Regiments – exist. The flags of the Colored Troops were sent to the War Department after the Mustering Office closed in June 1866. The colors remained in storage in Washington, D.C., until 1906 when they were moved to the museum of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Sometime in the early 1940s, most of the flags carried by the Colored Troops were discarded primarily because of a lack of storage space. Civil War flag expert Richard A. Sauers reveals much about the symbolism Bowser employed in his work in his two­-volume study, Advance the Colors! Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags, published by the Common­wealth’s Capitol Preservation Committee.

Camp William Penn’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Louis Wagner, described the flag of the 3rd Regiment as being of “regulation size, of fine blue silk, with coat-of-arms of U. S. and name of regiment on one side and a painting, finely executed, of the Goddess of Liberty presenting a flag to a colored sergeant on the other side.” In the background Bowser painted military camp tents and a United States flag, most likely an allusion to Camp William Penn.

The obverse of the 6th Regiment’s color depicts the Goddess of Liberty holding a flag, exhorting a freedman dressed in soldier’s uniform. In the background a slave applauds the black soldier. Sergeant Thomas R. Hawkins rescued this flag during a military assault on New Market Heights, Virginia, on September 29, 1864, for which he was awarded the Congression­al Medal of Honor.

In his vignette for the color of the 22nd Regiment, Bowser depicted a black soldier bayoneting a fallen Confederate color bearer who is attempting to defend himself. Bowser painted the scene below a banner emblazoned with Virginia’s state motto, Sic Semper Tyrannis (“Thus Always to Tyrants”).

Recalling historical and narrative paintings depicting Moses receiving the Ten Com­mandments, the color of the 24th Regiment – the last regiment organized at Camp William Penn – shows an unarmed black soldier standing on a mountaintop, arms stretched heavenward towards a message, Fiat Justitia (“Let Justice Be Done”). Above the poignant scene Bowser painted a scroll, “Let Soldiers in War be Citizens in Peace.” Bowser employed patriotic sentiments in his other co]ors, such as “Strike! For God and Liberty” (25th Regiment), “One Cause, One Country” (45th Regiment), and “We Will Prove Ourselves Men” (127th Regiment).

Although Bowser continued to work as an artist in Philadelphia after the Civil War, he was never again offered the opportunity that working for Camp William Penn had afforded him. His later work consisted of designing costumes and regalia for fraternal groups. (He no longer did such work for fire compa­nies.) In 1886, Bowser designed uniforms for the third biennial parade of the Patriarchs, a quasi-military society of blacks similar to the Masonic Knights Templar. Bowser became a 32nd degree Mason, the organization’s highest membership category, and in 1870 he was elected secretary of the Grand and United Odd Fellows, an African Ameri­can fraternity in Philadelphia paralleling the country’s more familiar organization, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

David Bustill Bowser died on June 30, 1900, in Philadelphia, his name and contributions to art and military history seemingly forgotten forever. Nine decades of neglect were ended in 1992, however, by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which paid lasting tribute to Bowser by erecting a state historical marker in front of his North Fourth Street residence. Through his artwork for the regiments at Camp William Penn, Bowser expressed the patriotism and loyalty of the Civil War era’s blacks. Even though many citizens of the day saw the black soldier as a threat, Bowser perceived – and gallantly illustrated – him as a citizen of color, defending his country. By juxtaposing the black soldier with icons such as George Washington and “Columbia,” Bowser hoped to make the world realize that the African American deserves to be treated with dignity. With his stunning designs for the flags of the United States Colored Troops, Bowser expressed in art what black soldiers felt about themselves and their country.

 

For Further Reading

Gladstone, William A. Men of Color. Gettysburg, Pa.: Thomas Publications, 1993.

Lane, Roger. William Dorsey’s Philadel­phia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Lewis, Samuella. African American Art and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Porter, James A. Modern Negro Art. Washington: Howard University Press, 1992.

Sauers, Richard A. Advance the Colors! Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags. Harrisburg: Capitol Preservation Committee, 1987.

 

The author is indebted to the research and work of Richard A. Sauers, who wrote the two-volume Advance the Colors! Pennsylva­nia Civil War Battle Flags.

 

Eric Ledell Smith is a historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.