Picturing the Civil War 3: African American Soldiers

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 Poster. Civil War Treasures of the New-York Historical Society, Library of Congress.

Figure 1. Recruiting Poster, 1863. Civil War Treasures of the New-York Historical Society, Library of Congress.

Recruiting Poster. Civil War Treasures of the New-York Historical Society, Library of Congress.

Figure 2. Recruiting Poster, 1863. Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s-1917, Record Group 94. National Archives.

Recruiting Broadside, 1863. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Figure 3. Recruiting Broadside, 1863. Massachusetts Historical Society.

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.

"Teaching the Negro Recruits the Use of the Minie Rifle," Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1863.

Figure 4. “Teaching the Negro Recruits the Use of the Minie Rifle,” Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1863.

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.

“A Typical Negro,” Harper’s Weekly, July 4, 1863.

Figure 5. “A Typical Negro,” Harper’s Weekly, July 4, 1863.

Two Brothers in Arms. Library of Congress

Figure 6. Two Brothers in Arms. Library of Congress

Figure 7. Seated black soldier with pistol and jacket. Library of Congress.

Figure 7. Seated black soldier with pistol and jacket. Library of Congress.

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.

Sergeant-Major Lewis Douglass, Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry, 1863, photograph,  Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

Figure 8. Sergeant-Major Lewis Douglass, 54th Mass. Infantry, 1863. Moorland-Spingarn Research Ctr., Howard Univ.

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.

Figure 9. “Is All Dem Yankees Dat’s Passing?,” Harper’s Weekly,  January 7, 1865.

Figure 9. “Is All Dem Yankees Dat’s Passing?”  Harper’s Weekly, January 7, 1865.

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.


  1. John McClymer
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    My colleague Lucia Knoles put together an extraordinary site, Northern Visions of Race, Region, and Reform, using the collections of the American Antiquarian Society. One section of the site deals with visual representations of slaves, soldiers, and freedmen and women, organized around three questions that she contends dominated white Northern thinking about race during the Civil War and Reconstruction,

    o Could they learn?
    o Would they work?
    o Could they be civilized?
    Her discussion is profusely illustrated with cartoons, illustrations from newsweeklies, and other sources. In working with my students I stress the range, complexities, and contradictions they will encounter. Here are two examples. The first is an illustration, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, “Emancipation Day in South Carolina.” The second is from a Civil War envelope.

  2. John McClymer
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    A brief follow-up to my first comment on this topic. The depiction of the color-sargeant of the 1st South Carolina regiment addressing the troops is very interesting since oratory was so prized in 19th Century America. Here is a photograph of the same scene,

  3. Shirley Wajda
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Could you explain further the statement “Such a direct gaze was always associated with an assumption of manliness and a claim to manhood in Civil War-era culture”? Given the requirements of photography in the era, as well as the number of images that feature women looking directly into the camera, is a man’s direct gaze different than a woman’s direct gaze?

  4. Alice Fahs
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much to John McClymer for pointing us to Lucia Knoles’s wonderful site, with all its visual riches. It is terrifically useful–and I’ve already bookmarked it for use in my 19th-century survey course next year.

    I’m also grateful that John has provided us with a link to the extraordinary “Emancipation Day in South Carolina” image, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of January 24, 1863. Very useful. That illustration (I talk about it in my book The Imagined Civil War) is one of the most startling of the war for its rare depiction of a black color sergeant publicly addressing his troops. But in line with John’s extremely useful reminder of the many contradictions in representations of African American soldiers during the war, it is interesting that this illustration was accompanied by text in Frank Leslie’s that said that “one of the chief rejoicers on the occasion was our old acquaintance, Sambo, who generally speaking, is always accompanied by the inevitable banjo.” Oscillations in imagery indeed!

    I’ve found that it is often the case that the text in Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s accompanying Civil War images (whether engraved from drawings or photographs) presents a more conservative vision than the images themselves. Perhaps this is because artists and photographers at the battlefront were truly seeing something new; writers who provided the commentary at the magazines relied more heavily on established stereotypes.

    As for Shirley Wajda’s interesting question: it was difficult to claim manhood without being able to claim a direct gaze. It was this gaze that periodicals tended to deny African American soldiers–although this changed somewhat during the war. Women, of course, were often represented in periodicals, including fictions, with an “averted” gaze before the war. But the daguerreotype, and photography in general, certainly shifted some of these conventions; by the end of the century, there are many more depictions of women with direct gazes in magazines.

  5. Posted November 16, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I think Alice’s last point about manhood is an important one to explore. For the most part, the enlistment of African-American soldiers presented to audiences images of heroic, if somewhat stoic, black warriors fighting the good fight–even if their contributions were often relegated to the background.

    This goes back to Alice’s point. How effective were these images in changing attitudes about blacks? If the image in Figure 9 were an example, not very. Even if you look at the recruitment posters, no other poster–at least to my knowledge, if someone can correct me–defines a group of men like the black posters (“Colored Men” in bold print). This sense of difference–and the insistence on maintaining difference–is one you can’t ignore.

    For an even more vulgar juxtaposition, try reconciling the images from the war to postwar depictions of black soldiers, particularly D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). I’ve linked the film below so our commentators can see. In my eyes, the lessons of the heroic black warrior fighting for freedom were lost in the mire of the Jim Crow South, here glorified on film.

  6. Chris Johnson
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Alice this is a fascinating presentation with many interesting points of view expressed by the group. I thought about your question regarding the use of illustrations and have been considering the issue of audience. As I use images in classes I eventually come around to the question, who where these images made for?

    Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, for example, visually introduced, and, arguably prepared a northern readership for the realities of African American life. After the war these periodicals take on the role of describing, amidst a continued barrage of bias, in particular black religion and music performance as cultural aspects. Such issues as John McClymer notes regarding learning, work, and civilization become even more relevant as northerners develop questions about this nascent class and their potential.

    For me the idea of visibility too becomes important as northerners increasingly are seeing African Americans in varying contexts, beginning with their role as soldiers. I have posted four images from Leslie’s, two from the war era and two from later, 1872 and 1883, by way of example of what this picturing becomes. In the third image a young well-dressed white woman gazes at, and is in close proximity with, a group of black performers. The fourth image is a full-page cover.

    Regarding visuality and the war era, my students tend to see the acting-out in such images only as a racist portrayal. The artifacts of culture, and performance practices, are quickly used in print both for and against the African American cause.

  7. Mary Niall Mitchell
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I agree with Chris Johnson that when using such images in the classroom, a discussion of audience is both necessary and fruitful. It’s not always something that students first think of on their own-they tend to read the image in the present, first (which is perhaps instinctual) and have to be prodded a bit to think about how nineteenth-century readers would have viewed such images. Photography is particularly good for this kind of discussion, I find. The image of Gordon, for instance, was taken from a photograph, a carte-de-visite if memory serves, which meant that it could be reproduced cheaply and sold for fundraising purposes. It was something of a crime photograph-with the difference being that the crime was the slaveholder’s not the slave’s-intended to shock white northern audiences. But the daguerreotypes posted here, while using the medium of photography, contain very different sorts of information.

    First, they were not easily reproduced, and in this sense were more like singular portraits than photographs. But they were also (in contrast to Gordon) more likely to have been commissioned by the sitters themselves. Photography could be used for surveillance (as with the Gordon image) but it could also be used for self-fashioning. (Nell Painter made this point in her discussions of Sojourner Truth’s self-commissioned carte-de-visite portraits.)

    So, the direct gaze, the pistol displayed across the chest-these images may offer a window into how black soldiers viewed themselves and their military service, as well as how they wanted to be remembered by wives, mothers, and children. That the medium of photography was becoming more affordable during the Civil War years is an important point in terms of understanding the lasting effects of images of black Civil War soldiers. Popular culture may have left “upright” images of black soldiers behind after Reconstruction, but the Civil War did mark the first time that African Americans could, literally, shape their own image.

  8. Alice Fahs
    Posted November 21, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks all for great comments. Mary’s idea that photographs offer the possibility for self-fashioning is very useful: in this regard, also wanted to mention that I have found Laura Wexler’s TENDER VIOLENCE an exemplary study of photography–very suggestive and useful, offering striking methodological insights about the subject’s relationship with the camera.

    So glad Luciano brought up D.W. Griffith–which I will address briefly in my next statement. And Chris’s reminder that we always need to ask ourselves who is looking at these images is helpful, too. Astonishing (or, sadly, not astonishing enough) how easily stereotypes replicate themselves in images after the Civil War. A question meant as much for myself as for everybody here: is there any difference between images and text in their power to replicate stereotypes? Are images doing something different? How do we relate images and text in our discussions of Civil War and post-Civil War imagery?