So far we have talked of the ways in which the Civil War disrupted standard assumptions of how war should look; and also have examined a few of the most popular sentimental images of the war, including a sentimental image of Emancipation. In this post I will consider representations of African American soldiers during the war.
The recruitment of African American soldiers was one of the most revolutionary developments of the Civil War– second only to Emancipation in creating a new relationship between African Americans and the nation. But recruitment also created challenges to accustomed modes of visual representation. Before the war, degraded and demeaning images of African Americans held sway in popular magazines such as Harper’s Weekly. Cartoon images of African Americans were often drawn from such sources as blackface minstrelsy, with its staged depictions of “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow.” Portrayals of African Americans within abolitionist literature were more sympathetic, but they tended to emphasize that slaves were helpless victims: the most popular abolitionist image, reproduced in countless engravings and medallions, was the kneeling slave in chains, hands clasped in supplication, looking upward. That representation of the slave was even replicated in the 1876 “Emancipation Monument” in Washington, D.C. (See Kirk Savage’s forum on Slavery on this website for thoughtful commentary on, as well as examples of, these images.)
With the active recruitment of African American soldiers beginning in late 1862, periodicals that prided themselves on being aligned with the North’s wartime goals needed to shift their representational stance. Could helpless victims fight the war? Could degraded “Zip Coons” fight the war? Propagandistic arguments that African American men should fight the war needed to be accompanied by illustrations that they could fight the war. Harper’s Weekly and other popular magazines, like Frank Leslie’s, began to change their images of African American men.
Let us start with a few recruiting posters (Figures 1, 2 and 3) aimed at African American men during the war. I include these here because these were revolutionary broadsides within American history– but also because we sometimes forget that forms of print (like these broadsides) are themselves images. The historian Peter Fritzsche, for example, has talked about our urban immersion in “word cities;” we are all surrounded by a world of printed signs that are part of our visual universe. Words can be images, in short.
Recruiting posters can be of special interest in the classroom. What words are emphasized in the following broadsides? How do they attempt to appeal to African American men? How do they combine rhetorical appeals with visual appeals? I’m sure you can think of additional questions we can ask our students about these signs.
By early 1863, popular magazines like Harper’s Weekly directly engaged the question of whether African American men would make good soldiers in their illustrations. In the March 14, 1863 illustration “Teaching the Negro Recruits the Use of the Minie Rifles” (Figure 4), for instance, we see that black soldiers are depicted as earnest, almost-“upright men” there is relatively little of the crude racial stereotyping or the hunched-over postures found in earlier depictions. At the same time, however, it’s hard to miss the prominent role of the white officer in “showing the way” here: notice his completely upright stance, as well, in contrast to the African American men he leads. This is hardly a visual evocation of equality, but instead a reiteration of African American dependence on white guidance.
The idea that former slaves might become soldiers fascinated a Northern white audience: beginning in 1863 there were several “before-and-after” images of slaves who had become soldiers in popular magazines. The Harper’s Weekly image of “A Typical Negro” below (Figure 5) is interesting for many reasons– not the least being the visual emphasis given to the central panel, which the text tells us is a depiction of the surgical examination previous to being mustered into the service. That examination revealed”the negro Gordon” (no first name was given) –back furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping. As Kirk Savage has pointed out, such “transformation” images allowed a double consciousness of African American men as both slave and free– always rooted in the past as well as the present. What’s more, Gordon’s bared back gives white viewers the same power over African American bodies that had held true in slave auctions. In other words, this “before and after” image does not really complete a transformation yet another way in which illustrations themselves denied full equality to African American men.
The rare daguerreotypes below allow us to see the ways in which African American soldiers themselves interacted with the conventions of photography. The first two photographs (Figures 6 and 7, most likely taken during the war, but possibly just after) offer a direct gaze to the viewer that we almost never see in magazine illustrations of African American soldiers. Such a direct gaze was always associated with an assumption of manliness and a claim to manhood in Civil War-era culture. The second daguerreotype, of course, is striking because of the pistol-a material indication of seriousness of purpose in battle.
In the third daguerreotype (Figure 8 right), taken during the war, Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, assumes an upright, manly pose– not dissimilar to the pose of the white officer in the Harper’s Weekly illustration — Teaching Negro Recruits. There are no comparably manly poses for African American soldiers as individuals in Harper’s Weekly, however.
Finally, it is good to remember that even as Northern illustrators began to depict African American men in new ways during the war, they by no means relinquished older racist stereotypes. Indeed, the weekly cartoons run by Harper’s Weekly (Figure 9 below) often relied on pernicious racial stereotyping, including “Sambo” images.
As we think about the ways in which the Civil War transformed and shaped how white Northerners envisioned African American participation in American life, we should remember that older stereotypes continued to influence depictions of African Americans. By the end of the century, such older stereotypes had in fact virtually replaced the new imagery of African American manhood to be found in Civil War illustrations.
How revolutionary was the Civil War, then, in changing our visual map of American society? Which soldiers were granted full manhood in visual culture, and which were not? What are the political, social, and cultural reasons why some images gain prominence in American life, and others disappear from our visual consciousness? These are a few of the questions we can ask our students as they use Civil War illustrations to understand the impact of the war on American life. I will be curious to hear your own ideas for using Civil War illustrations and images.